Research Into Humor Finds Complexity Unfunny
By Michael Cole
Mentalizing is the scientific term for our ability to understand what others intend, even without verbal communication. Mentalizing can also involve levels of â€œso-called intentionality.â€ So-called intentionality can be explained as twists in a story. Research has found that the average adult can follow a story with about five twists, or levels of so-called intentionality, before it becomes too complex to understand anymore. Conversations between people usually only have three levels of intentionality.
Overworking the Bit
When jokes are used in conversation, they are built upon a set of expectations. One of these expectations is that there will be a punchline that will inform the listener with new unexpected information in the context of the joke. If the joke involves the intentions of someone other than the teller of the joke or the listener, namely the character or characters in the joke, the joke becomes more difficult to follow and requires a greater expenditure of mental processing on the part of the listener. This is due to our ability to only handle a certain number of mind states at any given time.
A recent study investigated how our mental capacity restricts our sense of humor. To do so they used material from a online compilation of 101 funniest jokes of all time and analyzed the reactions to them from 55 undergraduate university students.
The jokes were composed of material used by successful stand-up comedians. Both long, complex jokes and simple one-liners were used. One third of the jokes were considered to be straightforward and factual, making little demand on listeners for complex understanding of obscure subjects. The remainder of the jokes involved references to the mind states of characters in the jokes, meaning they were more complex and demanded more brain processing power from the listener.
Participants rated the funniness of the jokes on a scale of 1 to 4, which ranged from not at all funny to very funny. Results of the study revealed that the jokes that were considered funniest involved two characters and up to five back-and-forth levels of intentionality between the comedian and the audience. If the jokes were more complex than that, listeners become distracted and lost the plot of the joke.
What this tells scientists studying humor is that jokes arenâ€™t dependent on how cleverly they are constructed. Instead, they are limited to a certain level of complexity, which if exceeded, results in the jokeâ€™s failure.
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