By Kyra Baldwin, Kenyon ’17
Humor is an elusively defined but perennially important part of our lives as humans. It is therefore extremely interesting when researchers attempt to empirically determine what exactly makes people funny and what our laughter is actually signifying. Joseph Moran, Marina Rain, Elizabeth Page-Gould, and Raymond A. Mar carried out a study in 2014 which sought to figure out what separates the comedians from the rest of us, particularly looking into if there is a relationship between making humorous jokes and finding jokes humorous. They concluded that, perhaps contradictory to social intuition, funny people don’t find things funnier.
Comedy in the everyday is usually characterized by the broad descriptor of someone having a “sense of humor” which does not specify if a person appreciates humor or produces humor. It is difficult to operationalize something as idiosyncratic as humor because there are so many types and tastes from physical comedy to satire. However, it can be effectively broken down into several processes. Humor comprehension refers to understanding a joke and is a precondition to humor appreciation. Humor appreciation is the “mirth response” of laughing or smiling in positive reaction to a joke or how funny a joke is perceived to be after it has been understood. Humor production refers to the making of jokes that are understood and appreciated by others. This can be further broken down into production fluency, how many jokes a person makes, and production success, how funny the jokes made are perceived. Past studies have shown replicable positive associations between humor comprehension and humor appreciation, between humor comprehension and humor production, but interestingly not between humor appreciation and humor production. This means specifically that comedic people have not been shown to enjoy comedy more.
Another way to look at humor is to examine if personality traits influence an individual’s ability to be funny or appreciate funniness. Traits shown to be positively correlated with humor appreciation in the past include empathy, openness to experience, and extraversion. Traits previously associated with successful humor production include high creativity and verbal intelligence.
This study examined how exactly humor appreciation and humor production relate as well as if individual traits are associated with being funny. The research was conducted with a larger group of participants than most related studies have in the past and controlled for humor context, in this case focusing on only written, caption-based humor.
160 participants were recruited globally from an online advertisement. Participants were asked to fill out a survey in which they rated how funny New Yorker cartoons were on a 7-point scale and then were asked to create their own captions to New Yorker cartoons within a 30 second time frame. Participants then filled out a Big Five questionnaire and a demographics questionnaire. Judges reviewed the captions and made sure they were valid before rating them as funny on the same 7-point scale.
The study found that humor appreciation was negatively correlated to humor production, meaning that those who made the funniest captions found the captions by New Yorker cartoonists less funny. It is unclear why this result was found, but one explanation is that intelligence mediates this relationship. People who are smarter can make funnier captions and are also more discerning about what they find funny. In regards to the eternally absurd debate concerning if women are as funny as men, the results showed no meaningful gender difference in ability to create humorous captions. Viewing this data in terms of societally influenced gender roles is particularly interesting. Women are generally conditioned to be better humor appreciators than men and men are conditioned to be better humor producers than women. The results follow this predicted pattern slightly, showing that women did find cartoons marginally funnier and men made marginally funnier captions, however these results were not ultimately statistically significant. Of the Big Five personality traits, emotional stability, openness to experience, conscientiousness and extraversion were all predictors of humor appreciation. However, the only trait that was associated with humor production was extraversion and it was negatively correlated. Demographics were better predictors for humor production, specifically English fluency and age.
These findings suggest that different motivations and cognitive mechanisms underlie humor appreciation versus humor production. One theory of humor that would explain this is that people make jokes to express dominance and agency in a group whereas people laugh at jokes to express warmth and group membership. However, these results don’t specifically support this theory as agreeableness, which one would then expect to correlate with humor appreciation, was the only trait that did not do so. Similarly, extraversion is associated with group agency and should therefore be positively correlated with humor production, but it was negatively correlated in this sample. More research should be done to farther clarify the motivational and neurological differences between humor appreciation and humor production.
One limitation of this study is that the findings are not very ecologically valid. When we are asked to be funny in our daily lives, it is not under a 30-second time constraint and we aren’t usually pitching captions for cartoons. As a result of this, the results don’t generalize to other types of humor that perhaps are related to different traits. It would be very interesting to conduct a study that looked at other humor types, such as joke-creation and delivery, and examine what traits are related to that type versus the humor looked at in this study.
Moran, J., Rain, M., Page-Gould, E., & Mar, R. (2014). Do I amuse you? Asymmetric predictors for humor appreciation and humor production. Journal of Research in Personality, 49, 8-13.