Hanlon’s Razor: Why You Shouldn’t Start By Assuming the Worst

Hanlons Razor

 

Hanlon’s razor is the adage that you should “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” Essentially, this means that when someone does something that affects you in a negative way, you should avoid assuming that they acted out of an intentional desire to cause harm, as long as there is a different plausible explanation for their behavior.

Applying this principle can be beneficial in a wide range of situations. In the following article, you will learn more about Hanlon’s razor, and about how you can implement it in various areas of life.

 

What is Hanlon’s razor

The basic formulation of Hanlon’s razor is:

“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

As such, Hanlon’s razor is a philosophical razor, meaning that it’s a simple guiding principle, that helps you select the most likely explanation for a phenomenon. Specifically, Hanlon’s razor encourages you to not start out by assuming that a certain action occurred due to someone’s ill intentions, if it’s possible that it occurred due to stupidity instead.

Hanlon’s razor is a valuable tool, that can help you deal with various everyday problems, such as having someone miss an appointment with you or not respond to an email. This is because Hanlon’s razor can help you figure out why people do the negative things that they do, while also helping you avoid the unnecessary anger and stress which are associated with immediately assuming that people had bad intentions.

Note that there are two important caveats that must be mentioned with regards to Hanlon’s razor:

  • Hanlon’s razor doesn’t have to do with whether a certain action was justified or not. That is, the use of Hanlon’s razor doesn’t imply that a certain action is acceptable just because it happened as a result of stupidity instead of malice. Rather, Hanlon’s razor is simply used in order to help you find the most likely explanation for an action, after which you can decide how to judge that action and how to respond accordingly.
  • Hanlon’s razor doesn’t imply that actions never occur due to malice. Rather, it states that in general, negative outcomes are more likely to occur as a result of stupidity rather than malice, and that it’s more beneficial for you to assume that stupidity was the cause of such outcomes, at least initially.

Overall, Hanlon’s razor is meant to serve as a simple rule of thumb, that gives you a good starting point when you’re trying to figure out the cause of something bad that happened.

In the following sections, you will learn how you can benefit from implementing from Hanlon’s razor, and how you can utilize it as effectively as possible.

 

How understanding Hanlon’s razor can benefit you

Using Hanlon’s razor when can be beneficial, for two main reasons:

  • Hanlon’s razor can help you find the most logical explanation for various events. This is because, in general, it’s more likely that people will do something out of a lack of awareness, than out of an intentional desire to cause harm.
  • It’s generally preferable for you to start by assuming a reason other than malice for negative events. In general, assuming malice as a cause of a negative event will cause you to experience more anger and stress than assuming other reasons. Therefore, you can generally benefit from not assuming the worst from the start, in terms of your emotional wellbeing and productivity.

Essentially, using Hanlon’s razor can help you quickly assess situations that you are in, and can help you deal with those situations in a better way.

In addition, from a philosophical perspective, using Hanlon’s razor can be seen as the “doing the right thing”, since it relates to the principle of charity, which represents the idea that you should start by assuming the best possible interpretation of other people’s statements and actions.

Adopting this stance is also beneficial for non-philosophical reasons, since giving people the benefit of the doubt at first can help you communicate with them in a more productive manner, that makes them more likely to cooperate with you in the future. This is especially important in relationships, both personal and professional, where assuming that the other person did something which had a negative outcome out of malice can be detrimental if you end up being wrong.

Finally, another valuable benefit of using Hanlon’s razor is that, in some cases, it could prompt you to take action that you otherwise wouldn’t.

For example, consider a situation where someone is doing something that bothers you, such as a situation where your next door neighbor is making a lot of noise. Instinctively, you might start out by assuming that they are aware that what they are doing is bothering you, and that they just don’t care, which is a mindset that causes you to believe that you shouldn’t bother asking them to stop.

However, by implementing Hanlon’s razor, you could realize that they are doing this not because they don’t care about bothering you, but because they’re simply unaware that what they’re doing is bothering you. This could encourage you to take positive action, such as asking them to stop, which you might not have done otherwise.

Overall, implementing Hanlon’s razor offers various benefits, including helping you feel less stressed out, and helping you communicate better with others. Next, you will see how you can implement Hanlon’s razor, in order to benefit from it as much as possible.

 

How to implement Hanlon’s razor

So far, we saw what Hanlon’s razor is, and how you can benefit from using it. Fortunately, implementing Hanlon’s razor in your everyday life is relatively simple, which is why it’s such a helpful principle to remember.

Essentially, Hanlon’s razor can be implemented any time you find yourself trying to find a reason for why someone did something that ended up having negative consequences, by negating your initial assumption that their actions occurred due to malice.

In the following sections, you will see a few specific guidelines that will help you implement Hanlon’s razor effectively, by expanding its scope, by accounting for the egocentric bias, and by learning how to assess the situation when deciding whether or not to use Hanlon’s razor in the first place.

 

Expanding Hanlon’s razor

While the original formulation of Hanlon’s razor is useful, it can be improved by modifying it a bit, to reach the following formulation:

“Never attribute to negative reasons that which is adequately explained by other causes.”

This formulation involves two important modifications from the original one:

  • “Malice” is replaced by “negative reasons”.
  • “Stupidity” is replaced by “other causes”.

This is important, because focusing only on malice and stupidity limits the meaning of this adage in a problematic way, since people can do things which end up having bad outcomes for others, even if they are not driven by malice or stupidity.

For example, if you’ve applied to a job and haven’t heard back after a few days, you might prematurely assume that it’s because the person in charge of the job thinks that you’re not good enough.

Here, the original formulation of Hanlon’s razor isn’t applicable, since you’re unlikely to attribute that person’s behavior to malice in the first place. Furthermore, you’re also unlikely to attribute their behavior to stupidity, since it’s more likely that there is an alternative explanation, such as the fact that they’re still processing applications from candidates.

By expanding Hanlon’s razor to account for negative reasons other than malice and for alternative causes other than stupidity, you could realize that applying Hanlon’s razor can be beneficial, by helping you not immediately assume that the reason that you haven’t heard back is that you’re not good enough.

Moreover, by expanding Hanlon’s razor this way, you are more likely to find the true cause of the other person’s action.

For example, if you send someone an email with a question, and they don’t reply back after a few days, you might assume that it’s because they’re actively ignoring you. If the only alternative explanation to this is that they’re stupid, you’re going to be less likely to apply Hanlon’s razor in this case, and less likely to find the true cause for their behavior.

By expanding Hanlon’s razor to account for alternative causes, you could realize that they might not have replies due to some other reason, such as because they forgot, because they’re busy at the moment, or because they’re trying to find the relevant information that they need in order to reply.

Overall, there are many alternative explanations for behaviors which can affect you in a negative way, beyond malice and stupidity. These can range from negative things, such as ignorance, carelessness, and incompetence, to more reasonable things, such as the fact that the other person needs more time in order to deal with the issue at hand.

Therefore, by expanding the scope of Hanlon’s razor in order to take alternative causes into account, you can benefit from using this principle in a far wider range of situations, and from being more likely to find the true cause behind other people’s actions.

 

Accounting for the egocentric bias

The egocentric bias is the tendency to rely on our own perspective when we interpret other people’s actions. This means that if, for example, you are an expert in a certain topic or emotionally invested in something, you might be more predisposed to believe that someone who does something negative is doing it intentionally.

For example, when you are an expert at a certain skill and see a novice doing something that they shouldn’t, it can sometimes be natural for you to assume that they did it intentionally, because for you, it’s obvious that what they did was wrong, and the egocentric bias makes it difficult to see things from their perspective.

In order to overcome the egocentric bias and make it easier for yourself to implement Hanlon’s razor in such situations, you can use self-distancing techniques. This involves trying to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, so that you can see things from their perspective.

This is important to do when you’re implementing Hanlon’s razor, because it can help you identify cases where you’re likely to incorrectly assume that someone did something on purpose, when that wasn’t the case.

 

Exceptions to Hanlon’s razor

While Hanlon’s razor is a good rule of thumb, it should be viewed as a guiding principle, rather than as an absolute truth. This is because, there are, in reality, some situations where a negative outcome should be attributed to malice, rather than to stupidity, ignorance, or any other causes.

This means that even though you should strive to give people the benefit of the doubt where possible, implementing Hanlon’s razor shouldn’t cause you to be naive or unprepared.

As such, when deciding when to implement Hanlon’s razor, you should take the following factors into consideration:

  • How likely it is that an action occurred due to reasons other than malice. The more likely it is that whatever happened did not occur due to malice, the more predisposed you should be to giving the other person the benefit of the doubt. When trying to assess this likelihood, you can take the person’s past actions into account, as well as their general personality, their abilities, and what they stand to gain from acting maliciously
  • What are the potential costs associated with incorrectly assuming malice. The more costly it will be for you to incorrectly or prematurely assume malice, the more predisposed you should be to assuming that whatever happened had happened due to a reason other than malice.
  • What are the costs associated with incorrectly assuming reasons other than malice. The more costly it will be for you to mistakenly assume that someone acted for reasons other than malice, the more cautious you should be when implementing Hanlon’s razor.

Accordingly, there are situations where you might choose not to use Hanlon’s razor, because the likelihood of the other person acting maliciously is so high, or because there is a high cost to incorrectly assuming that their actions did not occur due to malice. In such cases, it can be beneficial to start off by assuming malice after all, and to then only accept an alternative explanation after you have sufficient evidence indicating otherwise.

Such situations can be described using the concept of “guilty until proven innocent”, which is the opposite of the concept proposed by Hanlon’s razor, which can be described as “innocent until proven guilty”.

Keep in mind that in some cases, it can be beneficial to use a hybrid approach. This can involve, for example, assuming a non-malicious explanation for people’s actions, while at the same time preparing to act if the malicious explanation turns out to be true (i.e. “assume the best but prepare for the worst”).

 

The history of Hanlon’s razor

In general, Hanlon’s razor in its current form is attributed to Robert J. Hanlon, who purportedly submitted it to a 1980 book containing a compilation of various jokes related to Murphy’s law (which is the adage that “anything that can go wrong will go wrong”). However, since the underlying principle behind Hanlon’s razor has been mention in different formulations throughout history, it’s difficult to attribute it to a specific person.

For example, an early version of this adage appears in the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, where Goethe famously wrote:

“Misunderstandings and neglect occasion more mischief in the world than even malice and wickedness. At all events, the two latter are of less frequent occurrence.”

Author Robert Heinlein also mentioned this concept in his novel Logic of Empire, when one character tells another:

“You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity.”

A similar notion was described by Bernard Ingham, who served as Margaret Thatcher’s chief press secretary while she was Prime Minister of the UK, and who said that:

“Many journalists have fallen for the conspiracy theory of government. I do assure you that they would produce more accurate work if they adhered to the cock-up theory.”

Beyond the different formulations of Hanlon’s razor itself, there are also some related principles which have been mentioned. For example, in the novel Time Enough for Love by Robert Heinlein, an important principle is mentioned, which should be considered when taking Hanlon’s razor into account:

“Never underestimate the power of human stupidity.”

Another relevant principle which is commonly mentioned in conjunction with Hanlon’s razor is Grey’s law, which has an unclear source, and which states that:

“Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice.”

Finally, author Douglas Hubbard wrote a corollary to Hanlon’s razor, which states that:

“Never attribute to malice or stupidity that which can be explained by moderately rational individuals following incentives in a complex system of interactions.”

– The Failure of Risk Management: Why It’s Broken and How to Fix It

In saying this, Hubbard’s goal was to emphasize the fact that:

“People behaving with no central coordination and acting in their own best interest can still create results that appear to some to be clear proof of conspiracy or a plague of ignorance.”

Overall, it’s difficult to be perfectly certain what is the origin of the underlying idea behind Hanlon’s razor, since it has been proposed in various formulations throughout history.

Nevertheless, since this principle represents a valuable guideline when it comes to decision making, the important thing is to understand the basic rationale behind it, so that you can implement it effectively.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • Hanlon’s razor is the adage that you should “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”. Essentially, it serves as a guiding principle that encourages you to not start out by assuming that a certain action occurred due to someone’s bad intentions, if it’s possible that it occurred due to stupidity instead.
  • Hanlon’s razor can be improved, by modifying it to say that you should “never attribute to negative reasons that which is adequately explained by other causes“. This is important, because focusing only on malice and stupidity unnecessarily limits the scope of this adage.
  • Using Hanlon’s razor can be beneficial, since people often tend to assume that a bad outcome that they experienced occurred due to some negative reason, even when that isn’t the case. This can be detrimental, when it causes you to feel unnecessary stress, and when it hinders your ability to take action and to communicate with others.
  • When implementing Hanlon’s razor, it’s important to take into account your egocentric bias, which is the tendency to view things from your own perspective when interpreting other people’s actions. This is because the egocentric bias makes us more likely to overestimate the likelihood that someone knows that what they did affected us badly, in cases where the negative impact of their actions is not necessarily obvious to them.
  • When deciding whether or not to implement Hanlon’s razor, you should consider the likelihood that the other person acted maliciously, and weigh the potential cost of incorrectly assuming that they acted out of malice, as well as the cost of incorrectly assuming that they acted due to a different reason.

 


Loaded Questions: What They Are and How to Counter Them

Loaded Question

 

A loaded question is a question that contains an unverified assumption that the person being asked the question might disagree with. This type of question puts the person who is being questioned in a disadvantageous position, since the assumption in the question could reflect badly on them or make them feel forced them to pick an answer which they would not pick otherwise.

This rhetoric technique is frequently used in arguments and debates, so it’s important to understand it. In the following article, you will learn more about what loaded questions are, why they are fallacious, and how you can counter them successfully.

 

What is a loaded question

A loaded question is a trick question which presupposes some unverified piece of information, that the person being questioned might disagree with. Essentially, this kind of question contains an entrapment, which is used in order to attack the person who is being asked the question, and which compromises their ability to reply in the way that they would normally prefer.

Consider the following classic (but crass) example of a loaded question:

“Have you stopped beating your wife?”

This question is considered to be a loaded question due to its presupposition, which is the implicit background assumption that this question contains, and specifically the assumption that the person who is being questioned has been beating his wife. Thus, even though this sentence is phrased as a question, it also contains an implicit statement about the person being asked the question.

In this case, the loaded question pushes the respondent to give a yes/no answer. However, regardless of which of these options the respondent chooses, they will appear to agree with the question’s underlying presupposition:

  • If the respondent says “yes”, then he appears to confirm that he has beaten his wife in the past, but has since stopped.
  • If the respondent says “no”, then he appears to confirm that he has beaten his wife in the past, and is still doing so in the present.

Essentially, even if the respondent has never engaged in such a behavior, his intuition will often cause him to reply either “yes” or “no”, which appears to implicate him as a wife beater.

Both these replies can be intuitive, because this is the type of answer that usually applies to this type of question, and because both answers can make sense if he never beat his wife in the first place. That is, someone might intuitively reply “yes” if he’s trying to convey the fact that he is not beating his wife, or “no” if he is trying to convey the fact that he has never beaten her in the first place.

As such, loaded questions represent a type of an informal logical fallacy, since there is an issue with the premise of such questions, and specifically with the information that they presuppose. This information manifests in the form of an implicit assumption, which is integrated into question in a way that prompts the person being questioned to reply in a way that doesn’t allow them to contradict that assumption.

This rhetoric technique plays a role in various scenarios, both in the personal as well as in the political landscape. For example, in gotcha journalism, loaded questions are frequently used by reporters in order to interview people in a way that causes them to unintentionally make negative statements, that are damaging to their reputation or credibility.

Note: the use of loaded questions is referred to by various names, including the loaded question fallacy, the complex question fallacy, the fallacy of many questions, the fallacy of presupposition, and plurium interrogationum.

 

Examples of loaded questions

Below are various examples of different types of loaded questions, all of which presuppose something that the respondent might disagree with.

“Do you actually support that lazy president of ours?”

This question presupposes the fact that the president is lazy. Accordingly, if the respondent supports the president and replies “yes”, then their answer will inadvertently suggest that they think the president is lazy.

“Do you think that we should convict this criminal?”

This question presupposes the fact that the person being discussed is a criminal. Accordingly, if the respondent believes that that person is innocent and replies “no” in order to show that they don’t think a conviction is necessary, then their answer will inadvertently suggest that they believe that person is a criminal.

“Are you one of those hateful people that doesn’t believe in creationism?”

This question is framed so that if the respondent doesn’t believe in creationism and replies “yes” in order to show that, then their answer will inadvertently suggest that they believe themself to be hateful.

“Have you accepted the fact that most environmental studies don’t support global warming?”

This question presupposes the fact that most environmental studies don’t support global warming. If the respondent says “no”, because they know that this is wrong, then their answer inadvertently suggests that they agree with this presupposition, meaning that they believe that most studies don’t support global warming.

“Are you saying that you support the new bill just to annoy me, or are you seriously stupid enough to believe in it?”

This question is framed in a way that prompts the respondent to disagree with one of the two clauses in the statement (most commonly the second one), which inadvertently suggests that they agree with the other clause. In this case, if the respondent says “no” in order to show that they disagree with the idea that they support the bill because they are “stupid enough to believe in it”, then their answer implies that they support the bill just to annoy the other person.

“Are you naive enough to believe the mainstream media, or do you just not care about finding out the truth?”

This question is similar to the previous one, since it is framed in a way that prompts the respondent to disagree with one clause in particular, which leads to the implicit suggestion that they agree with the other clause, despite the fact that an agreement with either clause reflects badly on them.

“Can you meet to discuss this tomorrow, or are you too busy slacking off?”

This question also uses the double-clause technique we saw above. In this case, the loaded question is used in order to pressure the other person into accepting a certain proposal, because if they simply say “no” without expanding on their answer, then they appear to inadvertently confirm the alternative explanation for their refusal, which is generally framed as negative.

Note that the examples that we saw so far mostly prompt the respondent to give a yes/no answer. However, loaded questions don’t necessarily have to fit this format. Consider the following example:

“When did you stop stealing from your partner?”

Similarly to the loaded questions which prompt a yes/no answer, this type of question presupposes something that the respondent might disagree with (in this case, the fact that he stole from his partner).

However, such loaded questions are less common, because it’s less intuitive to answer them in a way that incriminates yourself, since the answers that they prompt are more open-ended.

Another example of such an open-ended loaded question is the following:

“Why is X so much better than Y?”

This question presupposes the fact that X is better than Y, in an implicit manner which makes it difficult for the respondent to disagree with.

“Why do you hate X?”

This open-ended question presupposes the fact that the person being asked the question hates X. As in the previous examples, while the respondent is technically free to reject this premise, the format of the question prompts them to answer it in a way that confirms it, even if this isn’t what they would normally choose to do.

 

How to counter a loaded question

In order to reply to a loaded question in a way that negates it, you first need to recognize the fact that a loaded question is being asked. You can recognize this type of question, as we saw above, by noticing that the question presupposes something that you disagree with, and which usually has a negative implication for you, or which limits your range of possible answers.

Once you recognize that you are being asked a loaded question, there are several options that you can choose from when it comes to picking your response:

  • Reply in a way that rejects the presupposition. To do this, answer the question in a way that is different from what your questioner is expecting, so that you can explicitly reject the implicit assumption that you disagree with. For example, if you’re asked “did you stop cheating on all of your tests?”, then instead of answering using a yes/no statement, reply by saying “I have never cheated on any of my tests”.
  • Point out the fallacious reasoning. To do this, you should explicitly point out the issue with the question that is being asked, by showing that it contains an inappropriate presupposition, and is therefore a loaded question. You can follow up on this by also answering in a way that rejects the presupposition, as we saw above, or by asking the other person to justify the way that they phrased their question.  For example, if you’re asked “when will you stop cheating your way through your degree?” you can reply by saying “it’s wrong of you to assume that I’m cheating my way through my degree, since I never cheated on any of my exams. Why are you accusing me of doing this in the first place?”.
  • Refuse to answer the question or simply ignore it. In some cases, you might decide that the best course of action is to either explicitly refuse to answer the loaded question, or to ignore it and continue the discussion without acknowledging it. However, note that in general, refusing to answer the question will work best if you point out the fallacious reasoning first. Otherwise, you will likely be accused of dodging the question.

When countering loaded questions, it’s important to remember that people don’t always use this type of question on purpose, and that people sometimes ask loaded questions without realizing that they are doing so.

This is important to take into account when responding to such questions, since replying in a way that doesn’t accuse the other person of asking a loaded question intentionally can often lead to a more productive dialogue, especially if their fallacious reasoning was indeed unintentional.

 

How to avoid using loaded questions yourself

It’s possible that you’re using loaded questions without being aware that you are doing it. In order to solve this issue, the first thing that you need to do is recognize the fact that you’re about to ask someone a loaded question. You can do by following the criteria that we saw earlier, and checking whether a question that you are about to ask presupposes something that your respondent might not agree with.

Once you successfully recognize that you are about to ask a loaded question, you can modify your question in order to avoid using problematic phrasing. Specifically, in order to solve the issues associated with loaded questions, you need to break them apart into a series of questions, with the goal of first confirming that your presupposition is true, before moving on to ask the main question that you are seeking the answer to.

For example, instead of asking the following loaded question:

Why did you stop watching a lot of TV shows?

You can first ask the following question, which confirms that your initial presupposition is true:

Did you use to watch a lot of TV shows?

Then, if the respondent confirms this initial presupposition, you can move on to confirm the second presupposition in the question:

Did you stop watching a lot of TV shows?

Finally, if the respondent confirms this second presupposition, you can move on to ask the main question that you are interested in:

Why did you stop watching a lot of TV shows?

Combining these questions together yields the following deconstructed question:

Did you use to watch a lot of TV shows, and if so, then did you also stop watching a lot of TV shows, and if so, then why did you stop watching a lot of TV shows?

While this example doesn’t necessarily sound very natural, it illustrates the underlying concept behind deconstructing your loaded questions in order to make them valid.

In practice, the main thing to remember is to not ask questions that contain implicit assumptions that the person you are talking to might disagree with. Instead, you should separate such questions into a series of questions, in order to ensure that the other person agrees with your assumption in the first place. This will help you avoid fallacious reasoning in your questions, and will improve your communication with others.

 

Loaded questions aren’t always fallacious

It’s important to point out the fact that loaded questions aren’t inherently fallacious. Rather, they are fallacious only if there is some issue with the presupposition that they contain.

This is because if the presupposition that a question contains is valid, meaning that all the people involved in the discussion agree with it, then the question is generally not considered fallacious. For example, consider the following question:

“What movie do you want to watch tonight?”

This is a loaded question, in the sense that it presupposes that the person being asked the question wants to watch a movie with the person who is asking the question.

If the respondent isn’t interested in watching a movie, then the use of this question is considered fallacious, since it assumes that they do, and pressures them into replying in a way that confirms this assumption.

However, in a situation where both people accept the presupposition, meaning that they are both interested in watching a movie, then the use of this question is generally not considered fallacious, but is rather viewed as a principle of effective communication.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • A loaded question is a question that presupposes some unverified piece of information that the person being asked the question might disagree with. This type of question often pressures the respondent to reply in a way that they would normally prefer not to, and which reflects negatively on them.
  • For example, the question “have you stopped hitting your dog” is loaded, because it presupposes the fact that you have been hitting your dog. This kind of question prompts a yes/no answer, with the problem being that both answers appear to implicitly confirm the fact that you have been hitting your dog, even if your intention is to convey the fact that you have never done that.
  • When it comes to countering a loaded question, you should respond in a way which explicitly rejects the implicit presupposition that you disagree with. You can also point out the fallacious reasoning, in order to highlight the issue with the question being asked.
  • You can choose to refuse to answer a loaded question, or to ignore it entirely, which might be the preferable option in some cases. However, if you do this, it is generally preferable to point out the issue with the question first, in order to avoid looking like you are dodging the question for some other reason.
  • You should pay attention to the questions that you ask others, in order to ensure that you are not asking any loaded questions yourself. If you are about to ask a loaded question, you should instead deconstruct it into a series of questions, so that you can first confirm any presuppositions that you might have, before moving on to ask the main question that you are interested in.

 


The Humor Effect: How Laughing Helps You Remember

The Humor Effect

 

The humor effect is a psychological phenomenon that causes people to remember information better when that information is perceived as funny or humorous.

In the following article, you will learn more about this effect, and about how you can take advantage of it in order to remember things more effectively yourself, or in order to help other people remember information that you want them to remember.

 

The benefits of using humor

The humor effect is a phenomenon where people are better able to recall information that they perceive as humorous, compared to information that they don’t perceive as humorous. This is because the use of humor enhances people’s memory, whether they are trying to remember verbal information, such as words and sentences, or visual information, such as pictures and videos.

This improvement in memorization ability is attributed to two primary factors:

  • Increased attention- humorous information receives increased attention during the perception stage, compared to non-humorous information. Essentially, this means that because we find humorous information to be inherently interesting, we tend to pay attention to it when we see it, which naturally increases the likelihood that we will remember it.
  • Improved encoding- humorous information benefits from improved encoding during the information-encoding stage, often at the expense of non-humorous information that is encoded at the same time, or in close temporal proximity. Essentially, this means that our brain gives preferential treatment to humorous information when it comes to storing it in our memory; this is true even after accounting for the fact that we tend to pay more attention to humorous information in the first place.

In addition to these two factors, which improve our memorization ability directly, incorporating humor into information that you are trying to learn or trying to get other to remember has additional benefits, such as:

  • Mitigation of negative emotions- the use of humor serves as a distraction from negative emotions, such as anger or anxiety, that people might experience when processing certain information. This is due to the fact that processing humor places a significant cognitive demand on our working memory, and so our brain focuses on that rather than on the negative emotions that we would otherwise experience.
  • Energizing effect- reading or viewing something humorous has a positive and energizing effect, which is beneficial for your overall wellbeing, and which can help improve your memorization and recall for material encountered after the humorous material was originally viewed.
  • Increased interest- adding humor to the information that you are presenting can make it more interesting to others. For example, including humor in a speech can positively impact the way in which listeners perceive the speaker. Similarly, ads which use humor receive more attention, and are generally judged as being more convincing and more memorable.

Overall, this demonstrates the various benefits of including humor in information that you are trying to remember yourself, or in information that you are trying to get others to remember. Next, we will see a specific example of the application for humor in an educational setting, followed by guidelines for taking advantage of this effect in an optimal manner.

 

Example of the beneficial effect of humor in teaching

A study on the topic of humor examined how using humor in the classroom can help teach university-level courses. The participants in the study consisted of two groups of students who were enrolled in a one-semester statistics course. The lecturer consistently used humor in the lectures given to one group, while avoiding humor in the lectures given to the other group.

To convey statistical terms in a humorous way, the lecturer presented the class with various funny cartoons and amusing stories. For example, while teaching them that correlation does not imply causation, the lecturer used the following story in order to convey this concept:

On a planet whose inhabitants had just discovered earth and who were invisible to earthlings, experts decided to study the behavior of humans.

One of them planned to conduct a study on the differences between fat and thin people. He went to a cafeteria and watched and noted the coffee-drinking patterns of those coming in. He noted carefully the behavior of fat and slim people in their coffee-drinking behavior, calculated correlations on his data, and found a positive significant relation.

He reported: “There is a positive correlation between coffee drinking and body weight. Fat people mostly drink coffee with ‘Sweet and Low,’ thin people mostly with sugar. Conclusion: Sugar makes humans thin, while ‘Sweet and Low’ fattens them.”

Similarly, when teaching the students about the concept of means and standard deviations, the lecturer presented a cartoon which showed:

“…an explorer in Africa, talking to a few native children who watch him somewhat surprised. Behind the explorer, and without his being aware of it, is a huge crocodile with a wide-open mouth, ready to swallow him. He, addressing the kids, says, ‘There is no need to be afraid of crocodiles; around here their average length is only about 50 centimeters.’ One of the children says to another, ‘This guy had better think about the standard deviation, too.'”

Throughout the semester, the use of humor by the lecturer was calculated and methodical, with no more than three or four jokes appearing in a single lesson, and with some lessons featuring no humor at all. When the lecturer did use humor, they did so in the following way:

  • First, the lecturer taught a statistical concept.
  • Then, the lecturer illustrated this concept with a cartoon or a joke.
  • Finally, after the laughter subsided, the lecturer repeated the underlying concept which the students just learned.

In the end, the group which participated in the humorous lectures had higher scores on their final exam, by around 10 points (out of a 100), so that the average grade in the experimental humor group was ~82, while the average grade in the control group was ~72. Similar results were found later, when the experiment was replicated in an introductory psychology course.

Furthermore, other research on the topic supported these findings, and showed that educators who use humor are generally rated more positively by their students, who tend to feel that the use of humor makes the learning process more enjoyable.

Overall, this demonstrates the value of using humor to help people learn new concepts. Next, we will see some guidelines for utilizing humor as effectively as possible.

 

How to use humor effectively

So far, we saw that you can benefit from using humor in two situations:

  • Inserting humor into information that you need to learn can help you remember it better.
  • Inserting humor into a message that you want others to see can also help them remember it better, while helping draw attention to that message and making it more appealing.

The humorous addition doesn’t have to be major. Even including something minor, such as a funny pun, for example, can help people remember key information in your message.

However, it’s important to pay attention to the type of humor that you use in order to convey your message. When it comes to using humor in an educational setting, for example, different types of humor can lead to distinctly different outcomes:

  • The use of positive, nonaggressive humor is associated with improved learning outcomes, a relaxed learning environment, better student evaluations, an increased motivation to learn, improved information recall, and an increased degree of student satisfaction throughout the learning process.
  • Conversely, the use negative or aggressive humor, and especially humor that is aimed at particular students or groups of students, is associated with worse learning outcomes, an anxious and uncomfortable learning environment, worse student evaluations, more student distractions, and a reduced degree of student satisfaction throughout the learning process.

This indicates that it’s important to use humor that is perceived as positive, while avoiding humor that could be perceived as negative, since the latter type of humor can be detrimental to your goals. While it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between the two types of humor, it’s always better to err on the side of caution, and avoid using humor which your target audience could find insulting or offensive in some way.

The use humor can also be problematic if it’s done in a way that’s perceived as “clownish”. This can happen if you use humor too frequently, if you use humor which is inappropriate for the situation, or if you use humor which is overly self-deprecating. This is because using such humor can negatively influence people’s opinion of you, even if they find the humor itself amusing.

Remember that what is perceived as appropriate will depend on the context and on the audience that you are presenting the information to. For example, a joke that is appropriate to tell your friends when you’re sitting at a bar might not be appropriate to tell to your students in a classroom setting.

In addition, there are a few other tips worth keeping in mind when it comes to using humor strategically:

  • Humor works better when it’s related to the information that you’re trying to remember, or to the message that you’re trying to convey. Accordingly, try to use only relevant humor, and especially one that pertains directly to the information that you want to emphasize.
  • Humor serves as a better attention and memory aid when it’s unexpected in some way. Accordingly, try to avoid information that could be perceived by your audience as too predictable.
  • Humor works better when it’s not too subtle. While you don’t want to use humor that is greatly exaggerated, since this might cause you to appear clownish, you should also avoid using humor that is too subtle, since some people simply won’t notice it.

Finally, one more thing that’s important to take into consideration is that the improved recall of humorous information often comes at the expense of the worse recall of non-humorous information. This is primarily a problem if two important pieces of information are presented in close temporal proximity (e.g. one right after the other, with only one of them being humorous), but this is still something that you should keep in mind if you consistently use humor as a memory enhancer.

Overall, when using humor, it’s important to be careful, and ensure that the humor that you’re using serves its intended purpose, and that it’s appropriate given the context where you’re using it. Simply using humor without giving any thought to how you’re using it can end up backfiring, by hindering your ability to learn the material, or by causing you to make a bad impression on others.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • The humor effect is a phenomenon where people are better able to recall information that they perceive as humorous, compared to information that they perceive as non-humorous. This benefit extends to anything from remembering a funny story, to remembering a picture or a video.
  • People’s improved recall ability is attributed to the fact that humor prompts them to pay more attention to specific pieces of information, as well as to the fact that the use of humor leads to an improved encoding of that information. Using humor also has other benefits, such as mitigating negative emotions, providing an energizing effect, and increasing people’s interest in the information.
  • Because of this, the use of humor has been shown to be beneficial in various areas, ranging from advertising to public speaking and to teaching.
  • It’s important to use the right type of humor, and generally, it’s preferable to use humor that is positive and relevant to the topic at hand. Furthermore, it’s important not to use humor too frequently, and to avoid humor that can be perceived as clownish or overly aggressive.
  • The most important consideration when choosing what type of humor to use is the context. Different types of humor will work better in different environments and on a different audience.