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article imageThe power of sharing a good sense of humour

By Conor O'Brien     May 5, 2013 in Science
Everybody loves a good joke. Whether it’s a classic knock-knock, or one of those long-winded stories with an all-important punch line, joke sharing is a significant in many interactions. But there is more to a shared sense of humour than meets the eye.
Jokes come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes they are used as a “phatic token”, to initiate a conversation with somebody in a light-hearted manner. Others like to use a joke to break the anxiety of delivering a speech; we have all heard those terrible best man jokes being delivered from a rather crumpled sheet of paper in a pair of quivering hands.
So what’s in a sense of humour? Sharing a good joke makes us laugh, which in turn makes us happy, and inevitably it makes us like the person telling it. It doesn’t take an evolutionary psychologist to tell us that. But it does take an evolutionary psychologist to tell us why. It takes a pair of them, in fact.
Dr. Oliver Curry and Professor Robin Dunbar, researchers at the University of Oxford, are both well renowned for their investigations into evolution and its related fields. Their recent publication, "Sharing a joke: The effects of a similar sense of humor on affiliation and altruism", offers a remarkably interesting evolutionary approach to how sharing jokes, and having a similar sense of humour to others, has an influential role in interpersonal relations.
Curry and Dunbar explain that jokes are based upon a model proposed by Dr. Thomas Flamson and Prof. Clark Barrett, called the “encryption model of humour”. This model states that jokes are made up of an implicit reference to a shared piece of knowledge that is “encrypted”, as well as a public utterance that is explicit. Those who share the encrypted knowledge have a “key” which allows them to decrypt and understand the joke. In a nutshell, if somebody understands your joke, then they must have the shared knowledge required to do so, and can be identified as a compatible friend or mate.
In this sense, jokes are a vital social mechanism in human interpersonal relationships, and there is reason to believe that joking is an evolved mechanism. Curry and Dunbar describe that laughter evolved in primates to organise interpersonal “play”, by indicating acceptance of a “non-serious social interaction”, based on research by Signe Preuschoft and Jan van Hooff in 1997. This could probably help to explain the beginnings of jokes when humans first appeared on the Earth many millions of years ago.
This aside, Curry and Dunbar aimed to look at two predictions, hypothesised by their understanding of past research into joke sharing. The first prediction was that sharing appreciation of jokes would promote partner choice and the beginning of cooperative relations. The second prediction was that sharing appreciation of jokes would have a greater effect on affiliation and altruism than sharing appreciation of the first line of a novel (non-humorous stimulus).
Curry and Dunbar took a sample of 436 adults from the UK. Firstly, participants had to read either 18 jokes taken from the “100 Best Jokes”, or 18 first lines chosen from the “100 Best First Lines from Novels”. The 18 best jokes or first lines were selected by divergent responses from a preliminary sample. The participants had to rate each joke as either “funny” or “not funny”, or they had to rate the first 18 lines as “like” or “dislike”.
Participants were then shown another person’s ratings of the same jokes or lines that they had to rate, by a member of the same sex. However, this is what they were told. They were, in fact, experimentally manipulated ratings that were purposely supposed to be similar to the responses given by the participant, but in different ways. Consequently, the participants were split into four groups.
The first group of participants were shown ratings where only two of the ratings given by the experimenter were the same as the individual’s. The second group received six similarly rated jokes or lines. The third group were given 12 similar ratings and the fourth group received sixteen similar ratings. This gave the experiment 4 levels of similarity with 2 different types of stimulus.
The participants were then asked questions so that the experimenters could see whether they perceive the “other person” as someone they could get on with as a potential friend, to measure affiliation. To measure altruism, the participant was asked if they would keep a prize incentive that they were entered for, or if they would like to share some of the points with the other “person”.
It was found that participants who were shown more similar responses showed a more positive attitude to a relationship with the other “person”. However, only a shared appreciation of jokes increased the effect of altruism as well as affiliation, whereas a shared appreciation of the first line of a novel only promoted affiliation.
These results imply that sharing appreciation of jokes actually has a positive bearing on a potential relationship. Curry and Dunbar discuss that altruism probably requires more cooperation, to which sharing appreciation for a joke may be the key. They also discuss that “the effect of shared culture” is specific to cooperation; it is easier for people to cooperate with those who share a similar cultural view.
Curry and Dunbar are aware of ways in which their study could be improved by discussing that perhaps hearing a joke could cause a different social response to just reading one. Listening to a comedian say his jokes may induce more humour than just reading his lines, particularly as a lot of humour is down to delivery and timing. They suggest that more natural ways of delivering jokes should be explored for future research.
The results of this study make it clear that sharing a similar sense of humour with another person will make you feel more positively inclined to like them. The results of this interesting study suggest that you are more likely to experience altruism with a person who shares your sense of humour, which promotes selfless acts and stronger friendship.
So if you ever want to get on with somebody who you feel may not share that same altruistic feeling as you, perhaps it would be wise to crack a joke, as long as it is not a joke that they may not find funny. Unfortunately, this study does not tell us how badly that could go.
More about Jokes, Psychology, Evolution, Evolutionary psychology, affiliation
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