Humor Us

Hahaha! The average four-year-old child laughs 300 times a day. By contrast, it takes more than two months for the average 40-year-old adult to laugh that many times. This week, we talk with behavioral scientist Jennifer Aaker of Stanford University about why so many of us fall off a “humor cliff” as we become adults. Plus, how we can inject more laughter into our lives, even during the most difficult of times.

Additional Resources

Book:

Humor, Seriously by Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas. 2020.

Research Studies:

Risky business: When humor increases and decreases status, by Bitterly, T. B. et al. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2017.

Political humor, sharing, and remembering: Insights from neuroimaging, by Coronel, J. C., O’Donnell, M. B., Pandey, P., Delli Carpini, M. X., & Falk, E. B. Journal of Communication, 71(1), 129-161 (2021).


Laughter’s Influence on the Intimacy of Self-Disclosure, by Gray et al. Human Nature. 2015.

The Effect of Reminiscing about Laughter onRelationship Satisfaction, by Bazzini D. et al. Motivation and Emotion. 2007.

Sense of humor and survival among a county cohort of patients with end-stage renal failure: a two-year prospective study,by Svebak et al. The International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine. 2006.

Teaching and Learning with Humor, by Avner Ziv. The Journal of Experimental Education. 1998.

A Study of Laughter and Dissociation: Distinct Correlates of Laughter and Smiling During Bereavement, by Keltner D. and Bonanno G. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1997.


Managerial humor and subordinate satisfaction, by Wayne Decker. Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal. 1987.


Grab Bag:
Read more about karaoke diplomacy from Foreign Policy.
President Ronald Reagan’s humor from the Reagan Foundation.
Shaquille O’Neal’s full speech at Kobe Bryant’s memorial service.
More about employee trust.
Michael McIntyre stand-up routineMichael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow.
John Oliver’s show Last Week Tonight on gene editing.
Tina Fey shares her improv tips with then Google CEO Eric Schmidt.
Jerry Seinfeld stand-up routine on walking dogs.
Ellen Degeneres’ special, Relatable

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. For 31 years, Beth Nichols has worked at a homeless shelter in Chicago.

Beth Nicholls: This story takes place probably about 25 years ago.

Shankar Vedantam: In all those years of work, she's witnessed incredible displays of compassion and intense moments of conflict. One day, Beth was in the shelter kitchen making lunch. She could hear people laughing and talking in the dining room. Then the tone changed.

Beth Nicholls: And two mothers were at two separate tables, and they were angry about something that had gone on among their children. They began shouting at each other.

Shankar Vedantam: Beth rushed into the dining room.

Beth Nicholls: The women got closer and closer together, and circumstances got more and more loud. And verbally, things became more and more threatening. Nothing I was doing was working. And I felt that we had reached a point where I was not even present in their minds, like it was just the two of them. And as they were just inches from coming to blows, I had a washcloth in my hand from the kitchen and there was not a moment of premeditating this at all. I threw the washcloth up in the air and yelled, "Go for it!!!" And they dropped their arms and they turned and stared at me with their mouths open. And everybody in the dining room was like, "What?!" [laughs] And, it worked.

Shankar Vedantam: By suggesting that she was flagging the start of a race, Beth turned a tense moment into a joke.

Beth Nicholls: Yeah, but it actually was effective. Strangely enough.

Shankar Vedantam: Humor can defuse tension and bring us together like nothing else. It's how we make friends, bond with coworkers, get our entertainment. And yet, humor is often missing in many parts of our lives.

Jennifer Aaker: We lose our sense of humor, we stop smiling and laughing.

Shankar Vedantam: This week on Hidden Brain, the global humor cliff, and how making a joke is like exercising, meditating, and having sex all at the same time. Think about the smartest person you know, maybe it's your mom or a teacher. Now think about the most accomplished person you know. It has to be someone personally, not someone you've seen on TV, maybe a friend who's a scientist. Now think about the funniest person you know. When I do this, I find it takes me a moment. I know a lot of smart people. I've talked to a lot of accomplished people on the show. But funny people, not so much. At the Stanford Business School, behavioral scientist Jennifer Aaker has been asking a serious question, why is humor in short supply in many of our lives? Jennifer Aaker, welcome to Hidden Brain.

Jennifer Aaker: It's so nice to be here.

Shankar Vedantam: Some years ago, Jennifer, you were talking with a group of second graders and you asked them, "Who is the funniest person you know?". Can you describe the scene to me and tell me what they told you?

Jennifer Aaker: I was in the classroom of my daughter, at the time, she was in second grade. So I was teaching a little module on Power of Story, which I also teach at Stanford Business School. I had finished the segment early because these second graders, they're pretty damn smart. And so I decided to take the last five minutes of filler time and say, "Who thinks they're funny?" Everyone's hands shot up. Then I said, "Who is the funniest person that you know?" Everyone's hands shot up again.

Jennifer Aaker: I called on all 30. 29 of them said their dad or brother. I was horrified. So I went home that night and I talked to my family of three kids, Tea, Cooper, Devin, my husband, Andy. And I said, "Can you believe that no 29 out of these 30 kids all said their dad or brother." Everyone looked down quietly, not saying a word. And I said, "Excuse me?" And so Tea chirped up quietly, "Yes, dad is the funniest, then comes us, then our dog and then you."

Shankar Vedantam: You were behind the dog!

Jennifer Aaker: I was just decidedly behind the dog.

Shankar Vedantam: Jennifer can laugh about it now, but she also felt sad that she was seen as unfunny. Was that how people thought of her? She noticed, of course, the gender differences. The men were seen as funny, the women less so. Why was that? As she started to think about humor as a topic of research, she also stumbled on something else. The polling company, Gallup, found that when it came to humor and laughter, something was happening to both men and women around the world starting around age 23.

Jennifer Aaker: We lose our sense of humor. We stop smiling and laughing. So Gallup asked people in 166 countries the simple question, did you smile or laugh yesterday? So for those who are 16, 18, 20, the answer largely is yes. And then around 23, the answer becomes no. And we don't start laughing again until 70 or 80. Put another way, the average four-year-old laughs 300 times a day. It takes the average 40-year-old two and a half months to laugh that many times. So yes, what we call a global humor cliff. And this was research that was done before the global pandemic.

Shankar Vedantam: So just as people are entering the workforce, the laughter goes out of their lives. I mean, it's a pretty grim picture of what it's like to be a working age adult, Jennifer.

Jennifer Aaker: It is. We find that people go into the workforce, and they basically stop smiling and laughing, or behaving in ways that feel authentic. Part of it is that they go into work, and they think they have to be serious, or the risks of humor seem too great. Or by that time, they've decided they aren't funny, nor want to be funny, because that's inefficient and it belies their goals at work.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering if this research speaks to your own experience, Jennifer. If I had met you at age four or age eight, how much did you laugh?

Jennifer Aaker: When I was a four-year-old, I was about to hit the stand up circuit. That would have been some good times. By 16 and 18, I still had a very silly sense of humor. I remember times with my high school friends, where we would dress up for birthday parties, it was a very easy time to laugh and be silly. And then I moved into college where I had this sense of humor kind of dry and dark. And I basically had a humor fail. One of my friends said that my humor hurt her feelings. And I stopped making jokes around 23.

Shankar Vedantam: And would you say that you have experienced the same humor cliff in the years since 23? That in some ways, when you think back on what you did yesterday, can you remember times when you laughed on most days?

Jennifer Aaker: Well, so getting a PhD doesn't require a sense of humor nor does publishing academic articles scream, throw in a laugh line. So yes, I would say by the time I started my PhD, I had solidly lost a sense of humor, and definitely the propensity to laugh easily with colleagues. Now, they're very smart people. We're just not talking humor being a priority.

Shankar Vedantam: It's interesting. At some point in my own life, I feel I went from a world where people laughed at jokes, to a world where people would just say, that's funny when someone said a joke instead of laughing at the joke.

Jennifer Aaker: That's right. Or on text, just "LOL." That's it. Done.

Shankar Vedantam: Exactly. Yeah. So we've all heard the phrase, act professional. When you join in your company or you enter a workplace, you're supposed to behave in a certain way. No fooling around, no lounging about, and of course, no joking around. We've actually written the humor cliff into employee manuals.

Jennifer Aaker: Absolutely. It's interesting, this idea of bringing your whole self to work or how you act on weekends could be something that you would bring to work is something that has been underscored for a long time. What's interesting about the days in which we're living now with remote work, is that things are shifting in very significant ways. A lot of what we're talking about is not necessarily about cracking jokes, it's much more about being human.

Shankar Vedantam: So you point out that even though many people believe that the way to appear serious and professional in the workforce is not to engage in a lot of jokes, a lack of humor often points not to seriousness as much as a lack of confidence. And we see that many smart and serious people often are able to deploy humor to great effect. I want to play a short clip of former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, talking about diplomacy and her fashion choices in the aftermath of the first Persian Gulf War.

Madeleine Albright: And so all of a sudden, a poem appeared in the papers in Baghdad, comparing me to many things, but among them an unparalleled serpent. And so I happen to have a snake pin. So I wore it when we talked about Iraq. And when I went out to meet the press, they zeroed in and said, "Why are you wearing that snake pin?" I said, "Because Saddam Hussein compared me to an unparalleled serpent." And then I thought, well, this is fun. So I went out, and I bought a lot of pins that would, in fact, reflect what I thought we were going to do on any given day.

Shankar Vedantam: What was the message he was trying to send, Jennifer?

Jennifer Aaker: Exactly what we just talked about. That she, A) could read the room and know what was implicitly or explicitly being said about her, but also B) just showing up as a human. When people interact with her as Secretary Madeleine Albright, they act in one way. But when she used these pins to break a smile, that would actually allow them to interact with her in a very different way, one where she was much more human. And years later, Shankar, upon discovering that Russians had bugged the State Department, she wore this enormous bug pen to her meeting with the Russian Foreign Minister and he knew immediately that the jig was up. And it was great, too, because with the press on good days, she would wear butterflies and balloons. And then on bad days, she would wear carnivorous animals and spiders. So when people would say, how are you doing? She would just say, "Read my pins."

Shankar Vedantam: You tell the story of how Madeleine Albright once charmed a Russian diplomat during some high stakes negotiations. Can you describe what happened? Tell me that story.

Jennifer Aaker: Absolutely. So Secretary Albright was preparing for a summit in the Philippines. One of the diplomatic duties she was asked to perform was a skit. And this is apparently a tradition that happens during a formal dinner, a gala on the final evening of the summit. The United States always does very badly. There was a counterpart in the Russian government. And so what she did was she invited him to sing a duet with her. So this is the night before the dinner, they went, they had all this vodka and they rehearsed this skit that they were going to do together. Basically, instead of singing West Side Story, they performed together "East West Story." And that's how something that was going to be a disaster turned out to be a lot of fun.

Shankar Vedantam: Besides being a lot of fun, it seems like there was also a certain strategy in her deployment of humor, that it was more than just simply getting a laugh, it was actually being able to get to some results in diplomacy that she might not have been able to get to otherwise.

Jennifer Aaker: That's exactly right. And so the ability to shortcut negotiations, and be able to not just crack a smile, but be able to expedite the outcomes that she wanted to drive to was significant. Notice what she did there, right, she co-opted someone who did have an antagonistic point of view to be on our team. And that's what we find happens a lot of times when people use humor strategically and thoughtfully, it's basically creating a more inclusive environment where you feel like you're on the same team.

Shankar Vedantam: Right. And in some ways, if you co-opt an opponent or even an enemy to make a joke with you, it's very hard to feel like this person is still your opponent or is still your enemy. Once you've laughed with someone, it feels like you bonded with them.

Jennifer Aaker: That's exactly right. Think about the long term impact of this. When you interact a second time, it doesn't even matter if it's like years later, you're able to recall that "East West" song moment. So the opportunity to have a callback, which is simply referring to a previous time where people laughed together, and be able to rekindle that memory has all sorts of positive impacts on the relationship and on outcomes moving forward. So it has a ripple effect.

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah. People have noted for many years that one of the things that's happened in Washington is that many members of Congress do not stay in Washington. They don't live in Washington. They live in their home districts. Which didn't used to be the case. It used to be that many people who came to Washington naturally lived in Washington. But living in Washington has gotten such a bad reputation that most members of Congress go home for long weekends and for vacations. And so they're not hanging out with one another in the same space. And so they're not going to social occasions together. Presumably, they're also not laughing together as much as they might have done 20 or 30 years ago. And it makes you wonder how much of the poison that we see and sort of polarized discussions is because people actually haven't spent some time sitting down together and having a good laugh.

Jennifer Aaker: I completely agree. You think about the increasing element of divisiveness, of social isolation, and you also compare that with the scientific benefits of laughing together, or showing up in ways like Secretary Madeleine Albright did, they are significant. I will note there are other ways that we can cultivate humor, even though we're not physically close.

Jennifer Aaker: For example, Ronald Reagan was known to have essentially a signature story or jokes that he kept just like a little piece of paper he kept with him all the time.

Ronald Reagan:

One of the great things about having you here is that I get to tell a farm joke.

Jennifer Aaker: So these are one-liners that he would say in contexts where he was giving big speeches or even on the phone, and they would inevitably always crush. And then he would just write down what the title of that joke or story was.

Ronald Reagan: ... Was an old Kansas farmer there, he had a piece of creek bottom land that had never been developed at all, it was all rocks and brush. And he started clearing and cultivating the soil layer. And he planted a garden. It really became a garden spot, and he was pretty proud of what he'd done. So one Sunday morning, he asked the preacher if he would stop by to have a look. And he took one look, and he said, "This is wonderful." He said, "These are the biggest tomatoes I've ever seen. Praise the Lord. Those melons," he said, "the Lord really has blessed this place. And look at the height of that corn," he said, "God has really been good." And the old boy was listening to all this and he was getting more and more fidgety. And finally he blurted out, "Reverend, I wish you could have seen it when the Lord was doing it by himself."

Jennifer Aaker: That simple, classic way of using humor and understanding that humor can disarm and move goals forward is so important.

Shankar Vedantam: When we come back, we explore the psychological effects of humor and examine techniques used by professional comedians. You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Behavioral scientist Jennifer Aaker, has studied the effects of what she calls the humor cliff. Many of us sharply cut back on laughing as we joined the workforce in our early 20s. In her new book, Humor, Seriously, co-authored with Naomi Bagdonas, Jennifer examines the effects of the humor cliff. Losing out on years of laughter means more than missing out on fun. We miss out on all the psychological and professional benefits of humor. Jennifer, life is tough for lots of people. It's filled with pain, with adversity, sometimes with tragedy. And a lot of these people might say it's all well and good for a Stanford professor to tell me to laugh more, but I don't find much in my life to laugh about. What would you say to them about the role that humor can play in giving us perspective about our own problems?

Jennifer Aaker: It's such a good question. The reality though, is that we can't afford to be humorless. We're in the midst of a mental health crisis. Rates of depression are unparalleled and social isolation is piling on to increasingly stressful work conditions. We're working with our family's in environments where stress is high and none of this is funny. And yet, your and your company's greatest solution just might be humor.

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah. It's interesting. I think a lot of us confuse the importance of levity with the idea that it undermines the issue of gravity, that you can't in some ways have levity when you're talking about issues that are very serious. But when we think about the best memorial services, for example, when someone has just died, many of the best memorial services often have an element of humor. I'm thinking about the incredible eulogy that the basketball star, Shaquille O'Neal, offered after the death of Kobe Bryant. I want to play your short excerpt from his eulogy.

Shaquille O'Neal: Kobe gained my respect when the guys were complaining saying, "Shaq, Kobe is not passing the ball." I said, "I'll talk to him." I said, "Kobe, there's no I in team." And Kobe said, "I know, but there's a M-E in (beep)."

Shankar Vedantam: So I suppose, Jennifer, that someone could say Kobe's death in a helicopter crash is no laughing matter. But when you listen to Shaq, you don't hear any disrespect in that joke. If anything, you're hearing affection, you're hearing love.

Jennifer Aaker: Absolutely. The end of our book is written with Michael Lewis, and he ends the book in the afterword saying, "When humor exists, love is not far behind." And to your point, it's true, when we are consumed by grief, our sense of humor seems almost impossible to access. And yet, there's no greater comfort in times of sadness and mourning. In one study, researchers Dacher Keltner and George Bonanno looked at the effects of laughter actually on the bereavement process. And they recruited people who had lost a loved one in the previous six months, and they asked them to describe their relationship with their partner.

Jennifer Aaker: And basically what happened was that when the researchers reviewed the taped interviews, they found that when people who displayed genuine laughter, basically laughed out loud, they reported 80% less anger, 35% less distress than those who didn't laugh at all. And those genuine laughers also reported feeling significantly more positive about moving forward and also increased satisfaction with their current social relationships. Laughter does decrease stress and can defuse tension.

Jennifer Aaker: And more than that, that was such a great clip too, because it illuminates these funny moments. Those moments where you make others laugh, they often illuminate who you really are. The authenticity of Kobe and that moment came out in a way that I think would be really hard to explain. But that short story that gave rise to laughter and a common knowledge of, yeah, that makes sense, that's Kobe, I think it really does depict who one really is.

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah. You and I are having this conversation in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. And many of us have experienced, I think, over the course of the last several months, how difficult it is to be in quarantine. We know that many people are really hurting, many jobs have been lost, many lives have been lost. I want you to tell me a little story about something that happened in your own family. At the end of a very long day, your husband had come to sort of the end of his rope and said he was going to go out to the liquor store to get something to drink. Tell me the story of what happened.

Jennifer Aaker: We have a family text chain. And Andy, my husband, texted into it. So we have Cooper, Devon and Tea on the line. Not Mackey, our dog. But Andy goes, "It seems like a good day to stop by a wine store for some alcohol. Let me know if anyone has requests." He's obviously writing this for me. And 15-year-old Tea goes, "Okay, I'll pay for a bottle of the oldest finest red." It just brought all of us to laughter at a moment of like, it was this moment of surprise and misdirection. And the playfulness within our family that comes to life on this text string is pretty amazing. It really helps in the day to day.

Shankar Vedantam: And it's interesting, some people might say, well, the responsible thing to have done, Jennifer, was to tell your 15-year-old daughter that teenagers drinking alcohol is bad for their health and sort of to wag your finger at her. And I can sort of see where that impulse comes from. It comes from a good place of being worried about the risks of alcohol addiction and so forth. But in some ways, we miss the possibilities of humor and the benefits of humor when we sometimes fail to crack a grin.

Jennifer Aaker: Absolutely. It's so interesting. I'm increasingly convinced that making your children know that they are funny, even when some of their jokes might be out of context or slightly inappropriate, is one of the best parenting moves you can do. Think about how much confidence this inspires in a child when they know they made their family laugh. When you understand the humorous styles of each of your family members, it's also easier to laugh. Another small anecdote, one of our sons, Devon, he has a very dark sense of humor. Meaning like, Ted Bundy jokes, serial killer jokes can make their way into the conversation. And I never really quite got it. It was certainly hard to laugh generously in those moments. But once I understood his humorous style was different than mine, all of a sudden, things became even funnier at our home.

Shankar Vedantam: The benefits of humor in relieving stress are not just in the home, but in work settings as well. Many of us think we need to be serious in order to be taken seriously. But researchers are finding that humor is a powerful way to unlock creativity and productivity.

Jennifer Aaker: We find that humor is completely under appreciated and I underleveraged at work. When people use humor at work, and it doesn't even have to be good humor, it just has to be not inappropriate humor, the bar is so low, they're also seen as more competent and confident. In another set of studies, leaders with a sense of humor, again, they're not funny, they just have a sense of humor, are seen as more motivating and admired. And we're living in a time right now where trust has been on the decline. In one recent study, there was a large scale study done in the United States, researchers ask people would you rather trust your boss or a stranger? 58% of the people responded “stranger.”

Shankar Vedantam: Really?

Jennifer Aaker: Yes. The trust gap is significant. And what humor does is that allows you to interact with someone in a way that does cultivate trust. And employees who rate their bosses as having a sense of humor are 15% more satisfied and engaged in their jobs. One of my favorite studies, this was a study that shows even adding a light-hearted line at the end of a sales pitch, like, "My final offer is X, and I'll throw in my pet frog," increases customers' willingness to pay by 18%. So you get paid more based on a bad dad joke. Again, this is where we are right now.

Shankar Vedantam: I love that. So I want to talk for a moment about the ability that humor has to bond people together. There was a study conducted some years ago where researchers had groups of strangers watch video clips together, and some of them watched neutral clips, like a golf instructional video or a nature documentary, and others had a routine from the comedian, Michael McIntyre.

Michael McIntyre:

I particularly like Google Earth. And if you've been on Google Earth, it's amazing. They photographed every road in the whole world, and they put them on Google Earth on the computer. And you can go there, you just type it in, and you go there. You drag the little man over the map, and you drop him into the road, and then you're there. You can see it. It's really amazing technology. And you sit in front of the computer and you think, I can go anywhere, anywhere in the world. Where should I go? And we all come to the same conclusion, my house.

Shankar Vedantam: So the researchers then asked all of the volunteers to write a personal note to one of the strangers in that group. People who watched the comedian were more emotionally vulnerable, they were more likely to share personal information with a stranger. Why is it that humor makes it easier for us to bond with others, Jennifer?

Jennifer Aaker: So when we laugh, our brains release a cocktail of healthy hormones. So it releases endorphins, the same sort of hormones that are released with exercise. It reduces your cortisol, so it makes you calmer. And it also increases oxytocin, which is the same hormone released during sex and childbirth. Both moments when, evolutionarily speaking, it benefits us to feel bonded. But the big secret is that laughter also releases all of these chemicals in our brain at the same time. So it's like exercising and meditating and having sex at the same time, and logistically much simpler. And for that reason, people are more likely to open up, share laughter or even having a sense of humor shortens the distance between two people, making them again, as you said, more open to disclosing personal information.

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah. Now, I'm afraid I can't get the image of exercising, meditating and having sex all at the same time out of my head, so I might take a moment to get back. There's also been research that's found that couples rated their relationship as happier when they were prompted to remember moments when they shared a laugh. So this is not just true for strangers, even when people who know each other really well, even recall times when they were laughing together, it seems like it brings them closer.

Jennifer Aaker: This is one of my favorite studies, by the way. So couples were asked to tell stories about moments they laughed together versus couples who tell stories about happy moments. They report to be 23% more satisfied in their relationships. And laughter is free. And the actual mechanism behind humor is simple. Basically, it's sort of dragging you and anyone who laughs along with you. So it's like dragging others but in a very healthy way.

Shankar Vedantam: We talked earlier about Madeleine Albright using humor in tense situations. And we also had the story of Beth Nichols, who broke up a fight at the homeless shelter where she worked. I played a bit of Beth's story for Jennifer.

Beth Nicholls: As they were just inches from coming to blows, I really felt like we had come to the point of no return. I had a washcloth in my hand from the kitchen, and a couple inches in between them, I threw the washcloth up in the air and yelled, "Go for it!!!" And they dropped their arms and they turned, and stared at me with their mouths open. And everybody in the dining room was like, what? And it worked.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm not sure that Beth actually intended to be funny in that moment, Jennifer, but her intervention revealed the absurdity of the situation. Can you talk for a moment about the role that humor plays and can play in defusing conflict?

Jennifer Aaker: One way to think about this is that humor is the antidote to arrogance. What's a simple thing you can do to subvert a context like Secretary Albright did or that recent example? So at the core of comedy and humor is really this idea of truth and misdirection. So we laugh because we think, I do that, or I've seen people do that, or I think I know where she's going. It's recognition of what someone is sharing. But then when you add in misdirection, where you end a story where the listeners believe you're going one way, and then it reveals another, that's misdirection. And so in those cases, it can defuse tension in very significant ways, partly because the misdirection creates this element of surprise. And that's essentially what you're doing with humor, is you're surprising your brain and in that process tension is diffused.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm also wondering whether part of what happened in that incident that Beth Nichols describes is a process of reframing the conversation or reframing what's going on. So you have this very tense moment, two people are almost coming to blows. Everyone around them is basically standing around, they're bystanders trying to figure out what to do, if anything to do. And then you have suddenly this person coming throwing a washcloth up, almost like the start of a race or the launch of a boxing match or something and says, "Let's go!" And suddenly changes the frame of what's happening. And even the audience, the "the audience" sort of realizes now they're actually watching a spectacle, and it makes them sort of realize what they are doing. It makes the participants in the fight sort of step back for a second and say, I realize that there are people watching here, there's a performance that's unfolding. The reframing of what's happening, I think, is part of the reason why Beth managed to break up this fight.

Jennifer Aaker: Absolutely. The reframe is so powerful. We have research to show that when people spontaneously reframe their stories, the hardest stories that define their life as comedies, not only does it do things to them that make them feel better. But when they share those reframed stories, it allows the other individuals who are listening to feel closer to the individual.

Shankar Vedantam: The example you gave me a second ago that humor is sort of this combination of exercising, meditating and sex at the same time, I mean, it's a funny image. But one of the things that's powerful about that is that the humor allows the message to basically get in, in a way that's very sticky. Many comedians use humor as an educational tool, and perhaps none more than John Oliver in Last Week Tonight on one occasion, he explained the complex science of gene editing with the following description.

John Oliver: So tonight, we thought we'd take some time to talk about gene editing, what it is, what its potential could be, and what the chances are that we're all going to be killed by a 30-foot wolf. Let's start with the fact that gene editing actually isn't new. There have been technologies like these around for years. What is new and what is driving a lot of recent coverage is something called CRISPR, which stands for Crunchy Rectums In Sassy Pink Ray-Bans. Except it doesn't. It stands for this. But you won't remember that and you actually don't need to. So let's go back to the crunchy rectum thing.

Shankar Vedantam: So I might never be able to think about gene editing without thinking about crunchy rectums going forward. But tell me about this research that finds a link between humor and memory and the value of humor in educational settings.

Jennifer Aaker: Absolutely. Well, first of all, I really like the fact that this interview has changed images in your mind, Shankar, that you will not get out, ever. So I feel like our work here is done. Okay. A couple of studies that help unpack why this is so. First, researcher Avner Ziv showed that students who were taught class material with humor retain more of it in their class, scoring 11% higher on their final exams. What they did was they gave subjects humorous or non-humorous news clips. They basically designed it so that some of the news clips ended with jokes and some did not. And so in addition to collecting data on brain activity using fMRI technology, they also administered a memory test to these participants to determine how much information they retained from watching the clips. And those individuals in the humor condition retained not only significantly more information, but the elicited greater activity in the brain regions associated with thinking and cognition.

Shankar Vedantam: So it's one thing to say we all need more laughter in our lives that we need to see the humorous side of things. It's another thing to actually be able to pull off telling a good joke. It turns out, you can learn to do just that. We'll be back in a moment to explain how. You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Jennifer Aaker is a Behavioral Scientist at the Stanford Business School. As she was studying the psychology of humor, Jennifer came up with a theory: That the writing of a joke is similar to what she does herself as a researcher.

Jennifer Aaker: We have this theory that experimentation and the process that scientists use is actually strikingly similar to that which is used by comedians. You're having hypotheses, you're observing what goes on in the real world, and then you test those hypotheses. Some of us test it in the lab, and others of us test it on a stage. And you get feedback, whether it be laughs through an audience or experimental results from participants, and you confirm whether your hypothesis was correct. We are not known, academics are not known for our sense of humor. And yet, we learned so much about these secrets from comedians, we either think you're funny or you're not, there really is a science to it.

Shankar Vedantam: One thing Jennifer noticed was that science has two key elements to it, truth and misdirection.

Jennifer Aaker: So people think that humor is about inventing the perfect one-liner from thin air, but it's just about noticing what's true in your life. So if you just at the end of each day write down five observations from the day, like simple things, like how excited your dog is at dinnertime, or how you take a walk around the block every afternoon to break up the day, or how you actually took a work call today in your underwear. And then you apply these rules of misdirection, which is simply just saying, okay, how do you take someone down that path of truth and then surprise or misdirect? So for example, you might say something like, "The most thrilling part of my day is when I get dressed to the nines, leave my house, and circle the block just to feel something." Or like contrast... So contrast is another tool you can use with misdirection. My dog seems really excited that I'm home all day now, but my cat acts like it's the apocalypse. So basically what you're doing with the misdirect is you're just taking the small little thing that you notice that's kind of interesting, not even funny, and then you're exaggerating or contrasting it.

Shankar Vedantam: So one of the things that you point out in the book and that you just mentioned that I thought was so insightful was that humor is often not about seeing what's funny, but about seeing what's true. About noticing the things that basically happen all around us that most of us actually ignore. I want to play a little clip from comedian Jerry Seinfeld that I think illustrates both the ideas of spotting a truth but also then taking it and exaggerating that truth.

Jerry Seinfeld: Furniture. What else do dads like? They like car trunks. Ever try and help your father pack the trunk? "Dad, where does this go?" "Just set it down right there, it goes in some special way that only I understand." No one could help him. Aliens could come from other galaxies to help him. He would go, "Would you all just let me do this please? I know what I'm doing here." "Dad, they're from another galaxy, I think they know how to travel." "Not with your mother, they don't. Just get the rest of the stuff and let me handle it here."

Shankar Vedantam: And I feel like when I heard that, I can sort of almost see the dad character that this person is so vivid to me. And of course, then taking that and exaggerating that with the bit about aliens is sort of spinning out that moment of truth to sort of feel really at this point sort of galactic.

Jennifer Aaker: Absolutely. That's exactly right. Another one that I absolutely love from Jerry Seinfeld is he has this line, dogs are the leaders of the planet. If you see two life forms, one of them a poop-

Jerry Seinfeld:: ... Making a poop, the other one's carrying it for him. Who would you assume is in charge?

Jennifer Aaker: There's these like really simple ways to get from setup to punch line using this misdirection idea.

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah. There is also a very important humor principle that we learn from improv the actor Tina Fey, once sat down with former

Google CEO, Eric Schmidt, and taught him a comedy technique. They start out here by acting out an improvised scene.

Eric Schmidt: Stop. I've got a gun.

Tina Fey: The gun? The gun I gave you for our wedding anniversary, Eric, how could you?

Eric Schmidt: We're not married?

Tina Fey: We're not married is a denial. We've learned our first improv lesson.

Shankar Vedantam: Talk about the principle of yes, and, Jennifer.

Jennifer Aaker: One of the first rules of improv comedy is the concept of yes, and. So that's simply the rule that when you're a scene partner, Eric Schmidt, makes an offer either explicitly or implicitly, you always agree with the premise, and then you add something new to it. And so when you're trying to actually create a context where humor can thrive, that basic principle of "Yes, and" is really important to lay down as sort of one of the norms.

Shankar Vedantam: So we've talked about a number of different ideas here. We've talked about the idea of the importance of spotting truth, the value of exaggeration. I want to play you a clip from the comedian, Ellen DeGeneres, that really brings together many of these techniques. And I'm going to play the clip and have our listeners try to spot the elements of the different techniques that Ellen is using here.

Ellen DeGeneres: So it's been 15 years since I've done stand up. And when I decided to do this special, a friend of mine was at my house, and I told him, "I'm going to do stand up again." And he said, "Really?" And I said, "Yeah. I was hoping for more of a 'Really!'". But it was "Really?" And I said, "Yes. Why?" And he said, "Well, do you think you're still relatable?" I said, "Yes, I do think I'm still relatable. I'm a human being." Anyway, just then Betu, my butler, stepped into the library, and he announced that my breakfast was ready. I was on my third or fourth bite of cubed pineapple that Betu was feeding me. And I said, "Betu, I'm not hungry. I've lost my appetite. My friend has really upset me by what he said." He said, "Well, then I shall draw you a bath ma'am." So I'm sitting in the tub, and I'm looking out the window at the rose Garden. Anyway, I get out of the tub, and Betu had forgotten to put the towel next to the tub again. So I had to do that bathmat scoot all the way across the bathroom to get to the towel. You can imagine how big the bathroom is. It's like doing the bathmat scoot. And then I stopped and I was like, "Oh my god, this is relatable."

Shankar Vedantam: So Jennifer, walk me through what Ellen just did there.

Jennifer Aaker: Okay. So first, what she does really well, in general, but definitely in that clip is understanding what people are feeling and naming that thing. So the whole title of the tour, Relatable, and that entire first sketch is basically naming what people are feeling and thinking. Second, she uses exaggeration. So she kind of builds out that world. What she's doing is she's saying like, if that's true, what else is true? So for example, when she says if it's true that she has a butler named Betu, what else is true? The solarium, the rose garden, drawing a bath. And so you're painting out this world based on that simple exaggeration. She's often ending on funny. She's just got a remarkable sense of timing, like when to say basically, again. And then I think the other thing is the self-deprecation and self-awareness. We show that individuals that use self-deprecation, especially in high status contexts have an incredible ability to shorten the distance between them and the audience. It makes people much more approachable. So that level of self-awareness she let gleam in there was also really powerful because it ... Also, like the physical elements in it like the bathmat scoot was just fantastic.

Shankar Vedantam: She also does something here that you alluded to earlier in our conversation, which is this sketch starts with this friend of hers questioning whether she's still relatable. And by the time we come back to that, it's actually about 60 seconds into the joke that we come back to that. At that point, we realize this whole thing actually is part of the same unit. The whole thing is actually one setup for coming back to that original idea. You talked about the idea of callbacks earlier, the idea of sort of circling back and finding connections. Can you talk about that, not just from the point of view of what makes a joke work, but from the point of view of how callbacks in some ways bond people together and give them a sense of being part of a shared experience?

Jennifer Aaker: Absolutely. So callbacks are very simple things. That's basically just if you're in a meeting or in any context, and someone makes a joke, and then later in the meeting, you reference, you anchor on that laugh line, and you simply call back to it. Her ability in that sketch to call back to her friend, and then that she had multiple callbacks about the butler is really powerful. What happens when you do it, when all of us do it, is that you make the person who originally had the laugh line feel good, feel listened to, I see you, I heard you. It really actually helps to create this inclusive environment.

Shankar Vedantam: So we've talked a lot about the upside of humor in the workplace. But I want to acknowledge there are reasons many companies have clamped down on jokes in professional settings. You mentioned that this happened to you yourself in college where you know you had a joke about a friend and the friend thought that you were being hurtful or that you were being mean-spirited. So what's funny to you might not be not only not funny to me, it could actually be offensive to me. Jennifer, how do you draw a line between all the good things that humor does and the problematic things that can do, especially in the workplace?

Jennifer Aaker: One way to think about how do you avoid the risks associated with humor or how do you actually recover if there is a humor misstep, lies in the framework of truth, pain and distance. The idea is that truth is the heart of comedy. So we laugh at, as you said, what we recognize. But at the same time, truth coupled with pain and not enough distance may come across as insensitive or hurtful, or offensive. If you remove humor from the one line that you created, and the truth of that statement still stands there is integrity in actually what you're saying. And so when you have to say something like, "I'm just joking," you know you've lost it. Another rule that we talked about is like never punched down. And so that idea of using humor on someone within the organization that has lower levels of status, there's no faster way to lose an audience.

Shankar Vedantam: I understand that your mom used to be a hospice volunteer, and she would sometimes tell you stories at the end of the day about the regrets of the dying. What did she tell you, Jennifer?

Jennifer Aaker: Yeah. So she actually still is. She's done, gosh, more than 40 years of volunteering at hospice. And so we grew up, I'm the oldest of two, two other sisters, and so we would grow up listening to stories of what people wished for in their last days of life, because we're a fun family. And one of the things that we learned is people wish for simple things. Like, I wish I didn't take myself so seriously. I wish I let myself laugh more, which is remarkable because it's being expressed in one of the most serious meaningful moments of one's life. People wish that they had been more present, that they just savored the here and now. And what we find with humor is that you're forced to be very present. When you prioritize humor, you're listening for those callbacks, you're listening to those moments of truth that are being revealed. And so it allows you to cultivate joy in a very present way. And as we started this interview, Michael Lewis really, I think, captures the gist of what we're trying to create and communicate when he says, "When humor exists, love is not far behind." And there's few acts as easy and generous as sharing laughter with someone. So I think at the end of the day, the reason this work is so important is because it helps to encapsulate what's truly meaningful in life.

Shankar Vedantam: Jennifer Aaker is a Behavioral Scientist at the Stanford Business School, along with Naomi Bagdonas, she is co-author of the book "Humor, Seriously." Jennifer, thank you for joining me today on Hidden Brain.

Jennifer Aaker: Thank you.

Shankar Vedantam: Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Our audio production team includes Brigid McCarthy, Autumn Barnes, Ryan Katz, Andrew Chadwick, Kristin Wong, and Laura Kwerel. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I'm Hidden Brain's executive editor. Our unsung hero this week is Lawrence Good-Worth, who works for Justworks, the company that handles payroll for Hidden Brain Media. We recently had some questions about the way we had set up our vacation and sick leave policies. They were complicated. And Lawrence patiently went through them with us, explaining the minutiae of things like carryover and accrual caps. Thank you for your patience and attention to detail, Lawrence. One last thing before we go, we're working on a story about choices, how we make choices, and how we think of them looking back. Are there big life-changing choices you've made that you would make differently today? Why did you make that choice? What did your younger self not understand about who you are today or about the permanence of that decision? If you're willing to share a story like that with the Hidden Brain audience, find a quiet room and record a voice memo on your phone. Three to four minutes is plenty. Email it to us at ideas@hiddenbrain.org and use the subject line, Choices. Make sure to include your full name and a phone number where we can reach you if we decide to feature your story. Again, that email address is ideas@hiddenbrain.org I'm Shankar Vedantam. See you next week.

Jennifer Aaker: I love this interview. I love the fact that you have some images you can't get rid of.

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah. I'm now have the combination of crunchy rectums and meditating, exercising and having sex at the same time.

Jennifer Aaker: Oh my gosh, can we just put that in as a blooper reel?

Podcast:

Subscribe to the Hidden Brain Podcast on your favorite podcast player so you never miss an episode.

google podcast subscribe
spotify podcast subscribe

Newsletter:

Go behind the scenes, see what Shankar is reading and find more useful resources and links.