Words like boobiehoop, squibble, and whizztangle may not sound particularly scientific, but researchers at the University of Alberta believe they may have uncovered the mathematical logic behind what makes nonsense words like these so funny. Taking their concept a step further, they found that the same formula also applied to puns, wisecracks, and jokes in general, and could therefore provide a basic framework for all forms of humor.
Presenting their findings in the Journal of Memory and Language, the researchers based their theory on the musings of German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who in 1818 stated that “the cause of laughter in every case is simply the sudden perception of the incongruity between a concept and the real objects which have been thought through it in some relation.” In other words, it’s all to do with “expectation violation,” meaning that the humor of any situation relates to the degree to which it defies our expectations.
Many jokes make use of this concept by revealing unexpected meanings or implications in the punchline. By way of example, the study authors present the pun: when the clock is hungry it goes back four seconds. They suggest that the “funniness” of this joke lies in the unexpected double-meaning it contains.
To mathematically quantify this effect, they borrowed the Shannon entropy equation, which was devised by American mathematician Claude Shannon in order to determine the improbability of events. The formula produces a high entropy value for unpredictable events, and a lower entropy value for predictable events.
Armed with this notion, the team decided to investigate the level of humor detected by 968 undergraduate students at the University of Alberta in a series of non-words (NWs). These NWs were given an entropy value based on the unlikeliness of their combinations of letters appearing in the English language – or “non-wordness.” Using this, the researchers found that they were able to reliably predict that the most entropic words were rated as the funniest, suggesting that Shannon entropy may well be a key indicator of comedic value.
However, this shouldn’t be taken to mean that throwing in a few silly words is all it takes to make people laugh, as a number of other recent studies have revealed that good joke-telling requires a variety of key skills. For instance, a paper that appeared last week in the journal Human Nature indicated that the structure of a joke is vital to its overall effectiveness. According to the study, the best jokes contain two different characters and up to five back-and-forth interactions between them. Such jokes are enjoyable because they require listeners to engage a sophisticated level of mentalizing – meaning the act of comprehending the unspoken thoughts of hypothetical individuals – without being overly complex.
As studies like these reveal, harnessing the power of science could provide the key to finally devising the funniest joke in the world.