60-Second Mind

It's Funny Because It's True

New research proves that the things we find funny often reveal somewhat hidden beliefs we hold. Christie Nicholson reports

Did you see The Simpsons episode where Homer makes a toast to alcohol?:

“To alcohol! The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.”


There are a few reasons why we might find this funny. First there’s the inherently ridiculous contradiction—the recognition of absurdity is often funny.


Or it might be the surprise factor: Homer using alcohol to toast…alcohol!


But another possibility is that it’s funny because it’s true.


And those who find it particularly funny might be those who’ve actually experienced both claims (booze wreaks havoc in their lives, but they also drink to ease their pain).


In fact much of what we find humorous can reveal our beliefs. Since laughter is typically an unconscious, automatic response it is a useful measure for laying bare individual biases.


This month in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior Robert Lynch of Rutgers University published the first scientific evidence for the conventional folk wisdom: it’s funny because it’s true. But Lynch is not referring to objective truth, rather what we think is true.


Nearly 60 students were tested for their personal gender and racial biases, of which they might be quite unaware.


Then they watched comedian Bill Burr do a 30-minute stand up. Lynch measured the amount of laughter as well as more subtle—and automatic—facial expressions.


Those who found Burr’s racially charged jokes most funny (one about Burr, who is white, being afraid in black neighborhoods) also had shown a significant preference for whites. And those who laughed most at Burr’s gender based jokes (one about how men should make more money than women) also preferred more traditional gender stereotypes.


But Lynch notes that his findings are not about, “sexists like sexist jokes, and racists like racist jokes,” but rather the conclusions show that laughter often acts as a hard-to-fake signal of the somewhat unconscious beliefs we all hold, whatever those beliefs are.


So remember, something may indeed be funny because it’s true—about the way you think.   


—Christie Nicholson

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