Every classroom has its own spectrum of personalities. There’s the Cool Crew who throw the best parties, the Nerds who can answer any question and ace any test, and the Bad Kids who spend more time in detention than actual classes. And somewhere in between the bunch, there’s the Class Clown: the smart alec with a joke or a prank for any occasion, who the teacher just loved to hate.
But according to new research appearing in the latest issue of the journal Humor, those jokesters may actually be Nerds in hiding. When scientists challenged more than 200 Turkish middle-school students to get a chuckle out of a panel of humor experts, they found a tight connection between a kid’s comedy ability and intelligence level.
“We were particularly interested in the quality of humor made by children but evaluated by adults,” explained study lead Professor Ugur Sak. “Parents and teachers should be aware that if their children or students frequently make good quality humor, it is highly likely that they have extraordinary intelligence.”
Being funny has been considered a sign of high intelligence since – well, pretty much forever, actually. It’s such an ingrained idea across the globe that some researchers believe humor is basically the human equivalent of the tail of a peacock, or the grossly overinflated nasal septum of the hooded seal – a way of signaling that you have good genes, and should probably be mated with by all the most eligible tribespeople. Science has backed this idea up too: in adults, at least, an ability to make people laugh is associated with higher intelligence.
But in children, the study notes, “the magnitude of the relationship between intelligence and humor ability might be different.” That’s because children develop at different rates, and humor styles and characteristics “differ across developmental stages,” the authors explain. To test the association, the researchers asked the children to write captions for ten original cartoons, which seven experts – five cartoonists and two “humor educators” – rated for both funniness and relevance.
“[B]oth humor comprehension and humor production are important components of humor ability,” the paper explains. “The relevance of captions presents evidence as to whether students comprehend the context of cartoons by detecting and resolving incongruities in these cartoons. For example, students may produce funny captions, but these captions may not fit cartoons and thus sound nonsensical.”
Comparing the children’s humor ability to their intelligence as measured by the Anadolu Sak Intelligence Scale revealed a high level of correlation, the researchers write. In fact, higher intelligence – and especially the higher general knowledge and verbal reasoning abilities – accounts for more than two-thirds of the difference in humor abilities across children.
But there was one way in which children’s humor differs significantly from adult humor, the researchers found.
“While humor is frequently used for entertainment by adults, children use it mostly for peer acceptance,” Sak explained. “Therefore, the nature of adult and child humor differs.”
While the findings may bring vindication for the child comedians among us, the authors do point out that the study is extremely culture-specific. While Turkish children were chosen specifically because of the country’s mix of Eastern and Western culture, the differences in how humor is used and appreciated across the world means the results are not necessarily generalizable.
“A particular behavior perceived as intelligently humorous in a culture may not be so intellectually humorous in another culture,” the paper explains. “That is, humor reflects cultural norms even though it is a universal phenomenon.”
“Because humor appreciation is shaped by cultures … humor ability may differentially correlate with intelligence in different cultures,” it concludes. “Therefore, exploring the relationship between intelligence and humor ability in different cultural contexts might provide new evidence on their relationship.”