The Science of Humor | Dr. Peter McGraw

One trait most charismatic individuals share is humor. In this episode of the podcast, Connor dives into the science of humor with world-leading humor researcher, Dr. Peter McGraw.

We all know funny when we see it. But what’s funny to you might not be funny to another. We see this when jokes fall flat, or when someone laughs in a room full of silent people. But before Dr. Peter McGraw and his collaborators dove into the science of humor, we struggled to explain what actually makes things funny.

Dr. McGraw eventually cracked this problem with his theory of Benign Violations.

Benign Violations

Dr. McGraw and his team eventually developed a successful theory that explains humor. All humor, they contend, comes from “benign violations.” The things you find funny either move something benign closer to a violation or some violation closer to benign.

For example: you wouldn’t tell a joke about pedophilia at a parents group. However, if you were at a private gathering with only close friends who also share a perverse sense of humor, you might make a pedophilia joke and get a laugh.

Now imagine one of the people there was a victim of pedophilia. You wouldn’t make a joke about their personal trauma. Why? It violates the rules of humor. Making such an off-color joke is no longer benign, it’s just a violation.

Using Benign Violation Theory to Explain Dad Jokes

The Benign Violation theory also explains the phenomenon of dad jokes. Everyone knows that dads make terrible jokes. Yet most dads in the company of other adult friends have the capacity to make funny jokes.

This is likely because when they became dads, they were trying to make something benign into a slight violation that kids could appreciate. In essence, these dads stop evolving their humor. Then one day they make a joke designed for small children to a jaded teenagers who then says, “You’re not funny dad.”

The Science of Humor: Examples

Dr. McGraw gives examples of the two broad categories of benign violation. Sarah Silverman makes jokes about horrible violations like hate crimes. She does this by making them more benign. How? She uses cute voices and silly examples. This creates distance between the audience and the violation. All of a sudden it becomes funny.

Distance is a key concept in creating benign violations. Someone you don’t know falling down a flight of stairs and not hurting themselves is hilarious. Your grandmother falling down a set of stairs and breaking her hip while you watch isn’t funny at all.

On the other side, Jerry Seinfeld made an über-successful career out of pointing out what’s wrong with completely benign things. He tells jokes about things like chocolate chip cookies or plugins in airplane bathrooms. By moving these things closer to our attention he makes them more like violations while still remaining benign enough to be non-threatening.

The First Rule of Getting Funnier

Most of us will never be stand-up comics delivering humor in one direction. Our humor takes place in more of a give and take atmosphere. We’re in a work meeting and rather than being boring, we can interject some humor. Or, as parents we can use humor to connect with our kids (see the dad jokes section above).

So the question for normal people is how to be funnier in these contexts.

Dr. McGraw points out that first of all, yes this is a skill that can be improved upon just like basketball or anything else. That’s not to say you’ll become the next Jerry Seinfeld or LeBron James. But everyone can improve. One helpful tip is to understand the Benign Violations theory.

But even more, practice observation like stand-up comics do. Dr. McGraw points out that most stand-up comics keep a notepad on them or at least use their phone so they can constantly make observations. They see funny things and rather than just laughing and moving on, they make a note of it and why it was funny. They can then draw on that information later when writing jokes.

If you’re observant and astute, you can begin to notice not just that something is funny, but also why it’s funny.

So try that. Make note of funny things and quickly analyze whether it moved something benign towards a violation or something violating towards benign.

Much, Much More

These are just a few of the great insights Dr. McGraw shared on the podcast. He also dove into the benefits and drawbacks of humor. Plus, he helped Connor dissect his class clown tendencies from high school.

You won’t want to miss that.

Guest Bio: Dr. Peter McGraw

Dr. Peter McGraw is an expert in the interdisciplinary fields of emotion and behavioral economics. His research examines the interrelationship of judgment, emotion, and choice, with a focus on the production and consumption of entertainment.

In recent years, McGraw has been a leading force in moving the study of humor from the niche to the mainstream. One advantage that he has over his predecessors is his ability to conduct state-of-the-art experiments with the help of the team he directs at the Humor Research Lab (HuRL), a laboratory dedicated to the experimental study of humor, its antecedents and consequences. Another advantage is his willingness to leave the ivory tower to delve more deeply into research questions – whether trying his hand at stand-up at a dive bar, attending a funeral director convention, posing as a shopper at a gun show, or singing hymns at a fundamentalist Baptist church. In 2014, McGraw co-authored The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny.

McGraw is a professor at the Leeds School of Business and the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at CU Boulder. He teaches MBA and PhD courses in marketing management and behavioral economics. His work has been covered by The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR, BBC, TIME, and CNN.

Dr. McGraw’s New Book: The Humor Code

Research Website: The Humor Research Lab

Personal Website: Dr. Peter McGraw

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Editing & Mixing by: Aaron Johnson