Why are some jokes perceived as funny and others not?
According to new research, the more complex a joke, the less likely it is to elicit laughs.
The new study, led by Robert Dunbar at Oxford University in London, notes that the ability to fully understand another person’s often unspoken intentions is called mentalizing. This involves different levels of intentionality.
For example, an adult can comprehend up to five levels of intentionality before losing the plot of a too-complex story, he said. Conversations that share facts normally involve only three levels. Greater brain power is needed when people chat about the social behavior of others, because it requires them to think and rethink themselves into the shoes of others, the researcher explained.
When looking at humor, the best jokes are thought to build on a set of expectations and have a punchline to update the knowledge of the listener in an unexpected way.
Expectations that involve the thoughts or intentions of people other than the person telling the joke or the audience — for example the characters in the joke — are harder to pin down. That’s because our natural ability to handle only a limited number of mind states comes into play, according to the researcher.
For the study, Dunbar and his colleagues analyzed the reaction of 55 undergraduates from the London School of Economics to 65 jokes from an online compilation of the 101 funniest jokes of all time.
The collection mostly consisted of jokes from successful stand-up comedians. Some jokes were one-liners, while others were longer and more complex.
One-third of the jokes were factual and contained reasonably undemanding observations of idiosyncrasies in the world. The rest involved the mind states of third parties.
The jokes were rated on a scale from one to four, with one not at all funny to four being very funny.
The research team found that the funniest jokes are those that involve two characters and up to five back-and-forth levels of intentionality between the comedian and the audience. People easily lose the plot when jokes are more complex than that, the researchers discovered.
The findings do not suggest that humor is defined by how cleverly a joke is constructed, but rather that there is a limit to how complex its contents can be to still be considered funny, the researchers noted.
According to Dunbar, increasing the mentalizing complexity of the joke improves the perceived quality, but only up to a certain point. That means stand-up comedians cannot afford to tell intricate jokes that leave their audience feeling as if they’ve missed the punchline.
“The task of professional comics is to elicit laughs as directly and as fast as possible,” he said. “They generally do this most effectively when ensuring that they keep within the mental competence of the typical audience member. If they exceed these limits, the joke will not be perceived as funny.”
It is likely that everyday conversational jokes do not involve as many intentional levels as those that have been carefully constructed by professional comedians, he added.
The study was published in Springer’s journal Human Nature.