A Psychologist Explains Why Some Jokes Hit And Others Miss

Have you ever wondered what exactly makes a joke funny?

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | September 12, 2022

A new study published in Psychological Science explores the topic of joke and audience characteristics and highlights the latter as an important factor in eliciting funniness.

I recently spoke with Hannes Rosenbusch (Ph.D), assistant professor at the University of Amsterdam, and the lead author of the paper, to discuss the importance of the match between joke content and the preferences of the audience. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of joke and audience characteristics and what were the key findings of your study?

Everybody knows the feeling of making a joke and only receiving awkward silence or a blank stare in response. A pretty tough pill to swallow, especially if it happens during a date or a business presentation.

Many failed jokesters then deliberate whether the joke was actually bad or whether the other party just lacks a sense of humor. Professional comedians live in this state of uncertainty and try to break out of it by revising and perfecting their material.

I took a different approach by systematically measuring the variation in amusement between different audiences and a wide variety of jokes. The results say that there are stable differences between good and bad "laughers"

In other words, your conversation partner's dispositional tendency to laugh is tremendously important. Interestingly, the actual joke was not so important. If it made one listener laugh, it was still likely to bomb with the next participant. So you might conclude that one should simply pick easy audiences when telling jokes.

However, one thing was even more predictive of laughter: a match between joke content and the preferences of the audience.

People have stable tastes in humor, and knowing those will grant you reasonable certainty when delivering jokes. All in all, most jokes on the market are only marginally better or worse than others; people differ substantially in how much they laugh; and if you really want to ensure a positive reaction: "Know your audience!"

Could you briefly describe the methodology of the study?

We reanalyzed four public datasets of people indicating their amusement in response to different humor stimuli (videos, images, texts, words). Essentially, we estimated two key statistics per dataset: the amount of amusement variation between raters and stimuli, respectively.

The statistical models through which we estimated these statistics are called multi-level models. For datasets of jokes and funny words, it mattered mostly who the audience was, whereas the actual word/joke mattered very little.

For more immersive stimuli like images or entire video clips, the variance in joke quality became more important, but never as impactful as a watcher's general tendency to express amusement.

In the end, we did one big summary study in which we threw everything at the participants:

  • knock-knock jokes
  • memes
  • fail videos
  • celebrity interviews
  • political and artistic content
  • musical comedy
  • scenes from talk shows
  • movies and sitcoms
  • nonsensical texts
  • cartoons
  • standup comedy
  • puns
  • riddles
  • roasts
  • interactions with animals
  • jokes about group stereotypes
  • jokes about science
  • pickup lines
  • humorous tweets
  • bloopers, and more

Not only that, but we repeated the experiment a few weeks later to see if people had stable tastes in humor. Turns out: they do! In fact, those tastes are the most reliable predictor of amusement.

Can you give a brief description of the three sources of amusement variance: the material, the observer, and their interaction?

When we talk about the material in the paper, we mean any humor stimuli that can be consumed again and again. Notice, that such "performance humor" does not include situational humor involving, for instance, specific listeners. Still, the diversity of performance humor is very large and we took care to do this justice in our studies.

When we talk about variation in material, we refer to how different the average response is between different pieces of material.

If the variation is high, the content and quality of the joke are very predictive of amusement. If it is low (as it was most of the time), the overall chances of laughter did not differ much between materials.

Instead, variation was high between observers (we also call them raters or simply audience members). That means, you really want to tell your joke to someone who is inclined to laugh because these dispositional differences between people are more often the deciding factor than the joke itself.

Lastly, when we write of interaction effects between material and observer, we speak of pairings between specific jokes and specific audiences. If one type of joke keeps working really well for a specific person, while another joke always does poorly, we speak of a strong interaction effect (as opposed to the same kind of material having inconsistent success for the same audience).

As this interaction was really strong, we concluded that the match between audience and joke is much more important to consider than the qualities of the joke or the audience in isolation.

Could you tell us more about the "facets of humor appreciation"?

Humor researchers like Heintz and Ruch established distinct dimensions on which we evaluate jokes.

The main dimension is, of course, perceived funniness, the thing we wrote about in the paper.

However, there are other facets like perceived offensiveness that are often somewhat independent of funniness.

We confirmed that audience selection matters a lot when you try to elicit funniness. I bet you would find the same when measuring perceived offensiveness instead of funniness. Some people are quick to laugh and some are probably quickly offended.

Such new research would get at a different facet of humor appreciation. One of our reviewers already pointed out that studying offensiveness would be a natural follow-up.

What are the practical takeaways from your research for someone looking to improve their sense of humor for their social and emotional well-being?

I think a very positive takeaway is that you don't have to be judgmental towards yourself (and others) when a joke fails.

There is no joke that everybody likes.

Simultaneously, for every joke, there is an audience that appreciates it. Stand by your jokes, stand by what you find funny, and let's cut each other some slack.

At the same time, start considering your audience once you get to know them and try to find some common ground in the wide world of humor.

What kind of stimuli is most likely to help perceivers to adopt a humorous mindset?

There is certainly no silver bullet joke that is guaranteed to work. But we did see that more immersive stimuli (e.g., a video of a comedian performing a joke with dedicated emphasis, timing, and movements) can lead to more variation in ratings than simpler stimuli like a written text.

Generally, think about the taste of the target in question. Did you ever see them laugh? What did they laugh about?

Although, sometimes our preferences can even surprise us. The last joke that got me was a joke delivered by an HR guy in my company: "Whenever I get a stack of resumes, I throw half of them in the trash. I don't want unlucky people on my team."

Did you find any gender differences or other demographic differences?

Gender differences usually didn't matter much, but for some jokes, we did see that men and women differed in their average amusement.

Specifically, we saw in our data that men sometimes appreciated highly aggressive and sexual humor more than women. This was also reported in a recent review by Hofmann.

However, there are plenty of exceptions to these observations. In fact, a lot of great sexual comedy is now delivered by mega-successful female comedians.

Do you have plans for follow-up research? Where would you like to see research on humor go in the future?

Humor has been studied for millennia, but is still seen as a niche or alternative research area. I hope that future efforts in the field will, counterintuitively, be taken seriously.

A joke might change your love life, your career, or your attitude towards trauma and death.

Personally, I will start introducing computer science methods to improve psychologists' predictions of laughter. A powerful humor personalization algorithm would be something I would be very proud of.