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 they perceive that information as humorous. For example, a teacher could use the humor effect to help students learn a certain concept, by illustrating this concept using a funny story.

The humor effect can be highly beneficial, in a variety of situations. As such, in the following article you will learn more about the humor effect, and about how you can take advantage of it in order to remember things more effectively yourself, as well as in order to help other people remember information that you want them to remember.


The benefits of using humor

People are generally 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 others 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 that 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 explain statistical terms in a humorous way, the lecturer presented the class with various funny cartoons and amusing stories. For example, while teaching that correlation does not imply causation, the lecturer told the following story:

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 mean and standard deviation, 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.

Note: one limitation of the main study presented in this section is that, even though it states that the lecturers were instructed to “to teach exactly the same material, without the use of humor, in the control group”, it doesn’t clearly state whether the lecturers presented the exact same number of examples to both groups, and whether those examples were of equal quality. Nevertheless, this study still serves as a good example of how humor can be used in teaching, and the findings still suggest that humor can be a valuable pedagogical tool, as long as it’s used properly, something that has also been suggested by other studies on the topic.


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 of 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 psychological phenomenon that causes people to remember information better when they perceive that information as 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.