Does Humor Make You Smarter?
I’m sometimes asked what is the most surprising thing I’ve learned about humor, and the answer is easy. It’s that we don’t need to be funny to benefit from a humorous life.
This shocks many people, largely because we assume having a rich sense of humor means telling funny jokes. But it’s much deeper than that. To understand why, let’s look at a finding by Alice Isen and colleagues at the University of Maryland. Their experiment was relatively straight-forward and involved participants watching five minutes of gag reel footage from classic television shows like Gunsmoke and Have Gun Will Travel. This wasn’t special and was only intended to put them in a good mood and hopefully make them laugh. Not a bad way to begin a study.
What happened next was key, as all participants were given a remote semantic associates task―a common measure of creative problem solving ability. This involved being given triads of words like mate, shoes, and total, and then asked to identify the one word that connects them all. For the three example words, only running is a common link (running mate, running shoes, running total), and there are literally hundreds of such remote associate problems, but participants were given only seven. They we told the materials had nothing to do with the video and that they were just pilot testing a separate study.