Does Getting Older Mean Losing Your Sense of Humor?
Why absurd humor might help keep your brain young.
Posted January 12, 2018
We all like different jokes. Humor styles vary as much as we do, which is why a hilarious joke to one person may fall completely flat for another. Perhaps that’s why my own favorite joke appeals to me so much.
Duck #1: “Quack”
Duck #2: “I was going to say that!”
I’ve shared that joke dozens of times, perhaps hundreds, and it seldom gets a laugh. Yet I still love it, maybe because it’s a shibboleth for fans of silly humor. Laugh out loud, and I know you’re my kind of person. We all have jokes like that, ones only we love, and that love says a lot about who we really are.
Not long ago a British researcher analyzed differences in humor tastes by hosting one of the largest studies of all time. His name was Richard Wiseman, and he set up a website for people to submit their own favorite jokes, while also rating favorites of others. Not surprisingly, the most common jokes were also the simplest (“What’s brown and sticky? A stick!”). Some were raunchy, others complex, but all said something about the people who submitted them. Brits, as we know, tend to like absurd humor (“Why did the elephant stand on the marshmallow? So she wouldn't fall in the hot chocolate.”). Americans prefer their jokes to be aggressive. The Germans in Wiseman’s study found nearly all jokes hilarious, which either means they have a great sense of humor or none at all.
Many researchers have tried to use these humor differences to predict personality, though results have been mixed. In fact, it’s almost impossible to guess what joke any particular person will like, with one big exception. As we get older, we tend to turn away from absurd jokes like my duck quip. They’re just too weird.
That’s just the start. Scientists have found that disliking absurd humor as we get older is linked to a very specific personality trait, and that’s conservatism. As we age, we tend to be more fixed in our ways, leading to more conservative outlooks. There’s even a saying about this—children are fools if they are not liberal, just as adults are fools if they are not conservative. This maturation shows itself in several ways. One is a dislike for talking ducks.
In the twenty years since that first study on absurd humor and conservatism was conducted, other scientists have begun to understand why such differences occur. It turns out that absurd humor activates different brain regions than traditional jokes. Take this example:
A student asks her gym instructor to teach her how to do a split. “How flexible are you?” the instructor asks. The girl replies: “I can't make Tuesdays.”
That’s a normal joke, what is often called an Incongruity Joke because the girl’s expectation is incongruous with the instructor’s. That kind of joke activates the Temporal Lobe and Cingulate Cortex, regions responsible for conflict detection and memory. However, when confronted with something like the duck joke, which ignores the standard setup and resolution, very different brain regions take control. Not only are fewer brain regions activated, but they tend to be focused on interpreting the language of the joke, rather than producing a cohesive story. In other words, our brains tend to be as confused as their owners.
As we get older, we like our stories to make sense, so it shouldn’t be surprising that we don’t like jokes that go nowhere. But could absurd humor be a sort of exercise? Perhaps we become more conservative over the years because we become less flexible and less patient with absent punchlines. Maybe our brains need to be jolted with humor that doesn’t take us where we expect. Even if that destination is nowhere at all.
Which makes me think that maybe duck jokes are quite important. Countless studies have already found that laughing frequently improves heart health, immune system response, and even mental outlook. Perhaps absurd humor might be the best workout for the brain we can get. At worst, it gives us something to think about.
And now, my second favorite joke: “What has eight legs and an eye? Two chairs and half a cow’s head.”
Dai, R., Chen, H., Chan Y., Wu, C., Li, P., Cho, S. and Hu, J. (2017) To Resolve or Not To Resolve, that is the Question. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 1-13.
Ruch, W., McGhee, P., Hehl, F. (1990). Age Differences in the Enjoyment of Incongruity-Resolution and Nonsense Humor During Adulthood. Psychology and Aging, 5, 348-355.
Wiseman, R. (2008). Quirkology. London, UK : Pan Books.