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Laughter in the Lab

On Thursday, the world's funniest joke was revealed - the result of a tedious experiment which revealed just how different people from different parts of the world perceive a joke to be jolly.


Humour plays a key role in worldwide brain research

According to Sue Hordijenko, Science Communication Manager at the British Association for the Advancement of Science, it is the “most far-reaching pyschology experiment ever”: Last year in October, the British Association asked internet users around the world to submit their favourite puns and rate the funniness of other people’s submitted jokes. On Thursday, the world’s funniest joke was revealed.

Ratings on the laughometer

According to Dr. Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire, who devised the experiment called “Laugh Lab” with the association, “the response has been enormous”. More than 100 000 people from 70 countries took part in the project, more than 40, 000 were submitted in less than one year.

In the joke review process, a user, after disclosing limited personal information including gender, age and nationality, was confronted with 5 jokes, picked at random from all those previously submitted. The user was then asked for a laughometer rating on each. Data from this process was then saved in a database and used by the scientists in their analysis of the “funniest joke of the world”.

According to Dr. Wisemann it was possible to determine major differences between what people found funny, both between sexes, and between nationalities.

Males’ top jokes for instance involved aggression, putting women down and sexual innuendo. In contrast, females preferred jokes involving word plays.

“These findings reflect fundamental differences in the ways in which males and females use humour”, pyschologist Dr. Richard Wiseman said.

National divergence

In addition, reasearchers discovered large differences between what people from various nations found funny: While participants from the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand prefered word play, Americans and Canadians favoured jokes in which people were made to look stupid.

Europeans, meanwhile, favoured gags that were surreal or made fun of serious subjects such as illness, death and marriage. In Scotland, for example, death was a particularly prominent feature. In the UK, animals featured in the British participants’ favourite puns.

In addition, of the countries rating the highest number of jokes, Germans – perhaps surprisingly – laughed the most, closely followed by France, Belgium and Australia.

“This is an intriguing finding”, remarked Dr. Wiseman, “and we will be carrying out more research to discover exactly what is going on here”.

Key role in brain research

Humour is a scientific field which has seen intense research. Past discoveries in humour have revealed some important insights in the functionality of the brain.

For example the simple joke: “Two fish in a tank. One turns to the other and says 'do you know how to drive this?'". The punchline creates a feeling of surprise because it doesn’t seem to make any sense. Only a few minutes later does one realize the ambiguity of the word “tank”, and it is only then that one may find the situation funny.

“All of this involves many different types of brain activity”, the British Association for the Advancement of Science explains, “ – including linguistic processing, perception of incongruity and creativity in resolving the ambiguity.”

Whereas experiments on the location of the perception of humour in the brain, or on how humour changes as humans develop, Laugh Lab sought to explore how humour differed between men and women and between nationalities, and will carry on the experiment looking at whether the timing of the punchline in a joke matters, too.

Sociable and healthy

Indeed there is more to mirth that meets the eye: Laughter is to known to reduce stress and to be a boost to the immune system. Research shows people with heart disease are 40 per cent less likely to laugh in a variety of situations compared to others of the same age without heart disease.

Laughter is also thought to have an important evolutionary function, too: It is believed to have been a gesture of shared relief at the passing of danger, and a way of indicating true trust in one’s companions.

In addition, laughter is social: people are 30 times more likely to laugh at a joke in company than when they hear the joke alone. Last but not least, laughing 100 times is equal to 10 minutes on a rowing machine.

Leaves the world’s funniest joke, as revealed by the latest scientific research:

“Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other man pulls out his phone and calls emergency services.

He gasps to the operator: “My friend is dead! What can I do?” the operator in a calm, soothing voice replies: “Take it easy. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.”

There is a silence, then a shot is heard.

Back on the phone, the hunter says, “Ok, now what?”.

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