What's So Funny?: The Psychology Behind Jokes and Laughter

The Stooges' brand of slapstick makes us laugh because we identify with their klutziness. Besides, who hasn't had the desire to poke someone in the eye?
The Stooges' brand of slapstick makes us laugh because we identify with their klutziness. Besides, who hasn't had the desire to poke someone in the eye?
Funny faces make us laugh because we know, somewhere inside, that we can look equally funny. Kids especially love this type of humor.
Funny faces make us laugh because we know, somewhere inside, that we can look equally funny. Kids especially love this type of humor.

The Power of Contagious Laughter. If you don't at least smile at this, stop and make sure you have a pulse :-)

"Knock-knock...."

"So, a rabbi and a priest walk into a bar..."

"Why did the chicken cross the road?"

"Take my wife, please!"

Laughter is universal. it has nothing to do with what language we speak, which culture we were raised in, or what our religious faith is. We all laugh. Psychologists have compared laughter to speaking in tongues: we can't control what we laugh at, or the sounds that come out of our mouth. All we know is that we laugh, and that laughter transcends all of our differences.

Scientists have studied laughter by going out into public places and observing people in social settings, by searching for "the perfect joke" and studying its effect on the brain of its recipient, and by hooking people up to an MRI machine and studying brain activity as they listen to both real and "fake" (jokes not meant to funny) jokes. What they've discovered about laughter is a bit surprising. And it may explain why cerain people make us laugh easier than others can.

Four Facts About Laughter

1. Laughter varies by age and gender. Children laugh 400 times per day, as opposed to adults, who only laugh 15 times per day. Any parent has experienced this. Kids laugh at the weirdest things. But laughter is part of their cognitive development. Kids who tell and listen to jokes are learning about language, connections, and irony. Those who have a well-developeds sense of humor have a better outlook on life and an easier time interacting with their peers. (Check out Hub author Lela Davidson's great hubs about jokes for kids to get your little one laughing.)

Women laugh more than men: about 126% more, according to an article published in Psychology Today.

Men are the biggest laugh-getters, a trait that starts early in childhood. Most likely, if you think back to the class clown in elementary or middle school, it was a boy. What makes women the laughers and men the comedians? That question is still up in the air. As we learn more about the science of laughter, hopefully the answer will unfold.

2. Laughter is a social phenomenon. Ever notice that you laugh more when watching a funny movie with your pals than you do when you watch the same movie by yourself? Psychologists have studied this phenomenon, as well as the phenomenon known as "contagious laughter" to determine why it is that we laugh more with others. It comes down to communication. Laughter is a wordless, un-fakeable demonstration of human emotion. It binds us as maybe no other force on Earth can. Television producers of the 1950s understood this before anyone studied it---they started setting sitcoms to laugh tracks to make the home audience laugh and enjoy the show more. It's also why Leno, Letterman, and Conan tape before a live studio audience. The audience laughs, and we find ourselves laughing along with them.

3. Different types of jokes affect different parts of the brain. The part of the brain that reacts to jokes is the medial ventral prefrontal cortex, which is where cognitive devlopment, personality development, and determining correct social behavior occurs. However, different types of jokes trigger different parts of the brain as we process them. Puns take one path to the prefrontal cortex, for example, while story jokes take a completely different neurological path. This explains why people who have experienced brain trauma may find one type of joke funny, but find absolutely no humor in an equally funny joke of a different genre, or why they may lose their sense of humor all together.

4. Laughter has very little to do with the joke itself. In studying laughter in social settings, scientists observed an interesting phenomenon: the joke itself was the least important factor in instigating laughter. In fact, statements like "well, hello yourself," or "yeah, that's what I thought" were more likely to get a laugh than an actual joke was. The larger the group, the more each person in the group laughed. Women tend to laugh more heartily in the presence of men they are attracted to than they do in the presence of other women or men who don't attract them. What this tells us is that while a joke can be a great icebreaker, what matters more is the interaction and relationship between people. This also explains that one guy you know who tells the dumbest jokes but never fails to be the life of the party.

Comics, such as Gary Larson's "Far Side," make us laugh because we see some element of ourselves or our loved ones in them.
Comics, such as Gary Larson's "Far Side," make us laugh because we see some element of ourselves or our loved ones in them.

The Great Unifier

All of the research boils down to this inescapable fact: humans are, and are designed to be, social beings. Laughter is a reflex, just like the startle reflex, gag reflex, of the reflex of automatically pulling your hand away from a hot stove. Laughter is irresistible, contagious, and binds us through its universality. It transcends the issues and differences that divide us. In the end, we're all the same, laughing at the same dumb knock-knock joke as the next guy. Maybe that's really the reason laughter is the best medicine.

For more about Gary Larson and "The Far Side," check out Stephicks68's hub, "Gary Larson's Far Side Cartoon."

DVDs to Get Your Laugh On

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Comments 11 comments

stephhicks68 profile image

stephhicks68 8 years ago from Bend, Oregon

Great, interesting Hub! (and thanks for the plug!!) I'm a sucker for stats. Of course, I'm not surprised that kids laugh more than adults, but the women vs. men statistic is very interesting. :)


Whitney05 profile image

Whitney05 8 years ago from Georgia

That was the cutest video!


ripplemaker profile image

ripplemaker 8 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

If one is able to laugh at things, you'd get past misery quickly! I'd take a dose of healthy laughter any time of the day. :-)


IĆ°unn 8 years ago

really enlightening hub and an unusual angle. grand work~


Angela Harris profile image

Angela Harris 8 years ago from Around the USA

So interesting, and I love Far Side. It's my favorite cartoon strip. I was surprised to learn that women laugh more than men.


what's so funny, jokes 8 years ago

Super intersting, little kids always do amuse me more than most things on life these days and I persoanlly believe deep humour can stimulate various parts of our brain which make us communicate better. Laughter makes us more intelligent and makes life better to live through. Laugh at life!


quotations profile image

quotations 8 years ago from Canada

You're right laughter is contagious - that video got me giggling too.


William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

Good job, as usual, C.M. Larry, Mo and Curly always make me laugh, although I'm not usually a big fan of slapstick. "Always Leave 'em Laughing!"


Rhym O'Reison profile image

Rhym O'Reison 8 years ago from Crowley, Tx

Really great. Who couldn't use more laughter.


Rob Jundt profile image

Rob Jundt 8 years ago from Midwest USA

Great hub full of excellent research. Good job.


Moulik Mistry profile image

Moulik Mistry 6 years ago from Burdwan, West Bengal, India

Yes, laughter is a great unifier, I read with great interest...

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