What makes us laugh? And what people are suited to comedy? On the eve of Comic Relief, cognitive neuroscientist Sophie Scott is here to explain all.
The lifts at Russell Square tube station get extremely full at the best of times and last week was not the best of times. One lift wasn’t working and London Underground staff were manually guiding people into the other two. This led to an even higher amount of squeezing than usual; an amount of squeezing that is often already pretty high.
As a result the mood in the lift as I was inserted was one of tense jocularity. There were many loud giggles and a women next to me said: “You have to be friends with everyone in here!” a comment that led to even more (grateful) giggles.
Just before the doors slid shut a man replied: “Yes, I hope nobody FARTS!” We all stopped laughing and were plunged into a miserable, intimate silence as we descended into the Piccadilly Line.
I’m a scientist who studies laughter so I tend to dwell a lot on when and why people do or do not laugh. People commonly associate laughter with humour and many scientific approaches to humour assume some things are innately funny and will be funny to all people, over all time, in all cultures.
However, finding eternal topics that are always funny can be extremely difficult. Thus, while examples of fart jokes can be found pretty much everywhere throughout human history, no one was laughing in the lift simply because an unknown man was shouting about farts. When it comes to laughter, farts are not enough.
Maybe things aren’t necessarily funny. Perhaps what’s more important is that people are funny.
Some scientific research has tried to find out whether there are particular personality profiles associated with comedy in an attempt to identify why comedians make us laugh.
We have a cultural belief that comedians are neurotic extroverts who enjoy being the focus of an audience’s attention and applause but who are emotionally vulnerable to stress. A psychological study investigated this by looking at measurements of the ‘Big 5’ personality traits where people rate themselves in terms of how much they agree with statements like “I have a vivid imagination” (openness), “I pay attention to details” (conscientiousness), “I don’t mind being the centre of attention” (extroversion), “I feel others’ emotions” (agreeableness) and “I worry about things” (neuroticism).
The results were surprising. Compared to a large population of college students, comedians (amateur and professional) are no more neurotic than the students and were significantly less extrovert. In short, the comedians were not more emotionally unstable than the students and they were more introverted than them: our cultural stereotype is wrong.
Many scientific approaches to humour assume some things are innately funny and will be funny to all people, over all time, in all cultures.
There were some other differences too. Comedians were significantly more ‘open’ than the students, which means that they perceive themselves as having a greater appreciation for new experiences and feel more imaginative and creative than the students do.
The comedians rated themselves as less conscientious than the students, which may mean they see themselves as more impulsive in their actions and lacking in self control. Comedians also rated themselves as less agreeable, which sounds terrifying but simply means that they consider themselves to be less concerned with ensuring social harmony. Maybe in terms of performance comedians benefit from being more creative in how they insult you, while caring less if that upsets you. At the same time, perhaps we don’t want or need our comedians to be highly reliable and detail oriented.
Of course what we don’t know is what other creative people or performers might look like when compared to comedians on these same measures. A study that compared actors and comedians with a ‘normal’ control group on measures of experience found that the actors and comedians were very similar except for a measure of ‘introvertive anhedionia’: an indication of reduced need for social and physical intimacy. This suggests that the main difference between comedians and actors may be a reduced need in the comedians for social approval and contact.
When I showed these results to two stand-up comedians they felt that elements of these profiles made sense, but they also voiced some reservations.
Tiernan Douieb said: “I know so many comedians who are different from each other in all the characteristics you discuss. There are comics I know who are much more open and impulsive than others but I suppose being able to get up in front of people and express opinions makes comedians more impulsive and open than most non-comedians anyway. Also, comedians are definitely less extrovert than people assume.”
Kiri Pritchard-Mclean added: “I love that we rate ourselves as appreciating new experiences more, particularly as we spend most of our time stuck in traffic on the M6 or staying in dubious B&Bs. I’m not sure how imaginative and creative I feel when I’m convinced the bed I’m about to sleep in has seen more DNA than an episode of CSI.”
Both Kiri and Tiernan related the perceived need for less social intimacy and approval to the experience of performing comedy on stage, with Kiri suggesting it’s because “we fill our social gratification quota nicely every time we go on stage” and Tiernan adding, “the need for social approval tends to disappear the more you have approval for your comedy.”
Finally, there is also an important role here for the way we perceive people. If we consider people to be comedians, or they are comedians that we have heard of, we automatically assume that they are funnier.
A study that manipulated jokes and the identities of people who had ‘told’ those jokes showed that individuals rate jokes as funnier if they think the jokes were told by a known comedian (e.g. Miranda Hart) rather by than someone famous who isn’t considered to be a comic (e.g. Kate Winslet).In other words, we think stuff is funnier if we believe it has originated with someone who is culturally agreed to be a purveyor of funny stuff.
So, we think comedians are funnier than non comedians even if the jokes they tell are the same. And though we think of comedians as outgoing and affected by stress, they are more introverted and creative. When it comes to jokes the context of who is joking really matters. One misjudged comment changes a group of people nervously laughing in a lift to a group of silent people trapped in a lift with a stranger shouting about farts.
Perhaps if the person shouting about farts had been Sarah Millican we would have been laughing, but I’m not sure I want to run that experiment.
I am a cognitive neuroscientist at UCL, and I study brains, voices, speaking and laughing. In my spare time I try to turn theory into practice with science based stand up comedy. @sophiescott