“What is the best part of Switzerland? Their flag is a huge plus.”, says Alexa when you ask, um, her I guess, to tell you a joke. Although it probably isn’t the punchiest of lines, it does make me smile in that special way that says ‘I see what you did there and it’s a bit simplistic, but witty’. And it got me thinking about the qualities and personality traits one needs to be a good humor producer. It turns out, there are two independent factors that predict our ability to come up with good jokes. Read on.
If you always suspected that smarter people make better jokes, you can now rest assured – that is indeed the case. Multiple studies have independently observed that intelligence accounts for a quarter to a third of our ability to make good jokes. This doesn’t sound much but think of it this way – someone with good verbal skills can make thirty percent more people laugh or make them laugh thirty percent harder. I’d say that given the importance of humor for social attraction, mate selection, relationship satisfaction and well-being, that’s pretty good.
Now, we all know that intelligence is not a single entity – there are multiple types of it. According to the Cattell–Horn theory, for example, there’s crystalized and fluid intelligence (later expanded with visual one as well). Fluid intelligence relates to how well we deal with novel tasks and is usually linked to acquiring crystalized intelligence; the latter is a measure of our knowledge as indicated by vocabulary tests and general knowledge. So which of these two underpins our ability to make good jokes?
According to this article in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, it is our crystalized intelligence that accounts for our humor production abilities. The authors asked participants to write punchlines to cartoons they we presented with and then asked 10 judges to rate the funniness of the lines. The relationship between fluid intelligence and funniness of the jokes was exactly three times weaker than that of crystalized intelligence and humor production abilities.
In a nutshell, it is our crystalized intelligence, i.e. what we know, (closely related to verbal intelligence) that makes us funny. However, there appears to be another factor independent of intelligence that determines the quality of our jokes.
“Creativity is intelligence having fun.” Albert Einstein
We can hardly overstate the role of creativity in our lives. From arts to sports to business, our ability to “condense seemingly unrelated thoughts in odd ways to fulfill the useful purpose of entertainment” is both a source of great enjoyment and a factor for outstanding performance. Arguing that creativity gives our lives colour is probably a justifiable position.
Creativity it turns out, is also a key predictor of our ability to produce humor. In the study mentioned above, the authors also investigated what role divergent thinking plays in creating punchy lines. According to the study, a very similar one to intelligence, albeit just a bit weaker. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as intelligence and creativity are themselves very closely related and often times a higher score on one of them also means a higher score on the other as well.
What is interesting, though, is that intelligence and creativity affect the quality of our jokes independently. This might seem like a minor, semantical difference but is not. For this means, on one hand, that to produce high quality jokes it is not sufficient to be smart – you also need to be creative; and vice versa – it’s not sufficient to be creative – you also need to be smart. On the other hand, probably comforting the more modest of us, one need not have it all to make a funny joke – as long as you are smart or creative, your jokes will still work. But let’s face it, you need at least one of these.
My best wishes for a great day ahead!