The humor effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to remember information better when they perceive it as humorous.
For example, when students are taught a new concept in a humorous way, such as through a funny story, they’re generally more likely to remember that concept, compared to if it was taught in a non-humorous manner.
The humor effect can be highly beneficial, and humor in general offers a wide range of benefits, such as increased interest and increased energy levels. As such, in the following article you will learn more about the humor effect and about the benefits of humor, and see how you can use humor as effectively as possible.
The benefits of humor
This benefit, which is referred to as the humor effect, extends to different types of memory, such as recognition memory, which involves the ability to recognize things that one has encountered, and recall memory, which involves the ability to retrieve past information. Similarly, humor can also enhance people’s memory when it comes to verbal information, such as words and sentences, as well as when it comes to visual information, such as pictures, and mixed information, such as cartoons and videos.
The humor effect can be attributed to improved encoding and retrieval of humorous information compared to—and often at the expense of—non-humorous information, as a result of factors such as increased attention and increased rehearsal.
Furthermore, in addition to improved memory, humor has various other benefits. Most notably:
- Humor increases energy levels. Reading or viewing something humorous has a positive and energizing effect. This is beneficial for people’s overall wellbeing, and can help improve people’s memory of material encountered after the humorous material was viewed.
- Humor reduces negative emotions. Humor can distract people from negative emotions, such as anger or anxiety, that people might experience when processing certain information. This can be attributed, among other factors, to the fact that processing humor places a significant cognitive demand on working memory, meaning that people focus on the humor rather than on negative emotions that they would otherwise experience.
- Humor leads to increased interest. Adding humor to information that you’re presenting can make it more interesting and appealing to others. For example, ads that use humor receive more attention from people, in addition to being more memorable and more convincing.
- Humor can make others view you in a more positive manner. Humor, when properly used in the right circumstances, can improve other people’s impression of you. For example, including humor in a speech can positively impact the way in which listeners perceive the speaker. Similarly, using humor can improve people’s perception of your warmth and competence, especially when you combine it with negative information that you need to disclose.
Overall, the humor effect represents a notable benefit of humor, where humorous information is remembered better than non-humorous information. In addition, humor offers a variety of other benefits, such as increased interest, increased energy levels, and reduced negative emotions.
Caveats about the benefits of humor
It’ss important to note that there is some uncertainty regarding the exact benefits of humor.
Furthermore, there are still ongoing investigations regarding the mechanisms behind the benefits of humor, and it’s likely that there is variation involved, meaning that different mechanisms play a role in different circumstances. For example, when it comes to the benefits of humor with regard to memory, some studies have suggested that increased rehearsal plays a role, while other studies have rejected this claim.
From a practical perspective, the underlying mechanisms behind the benefits of humor can be important to understand in some cases, such as when you want to understand how exactly to use humor more effectively. However, there are also many situations where what matters are the benefits of humor in practice, regardless of the exact mechanisms that are responsible for them.
Overall, when considering the benefits of humor, it’s important to keep in mind that there is uncertainty regarding certain benefits and regarding the mechanisms behind them, particularly when it comes to the effects of humor in different circumstances and on different people. Nevertheless, the substantial evidence on the benefits of humor, outlined in the previous section, suggests that humor is beneficial in a wide range of situations.
Example of the benefits humor in teaching
Some of the benefits of humor are illustrated in a study that 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 for the course consistently used humor in the lectures given to one group, while avoiding humor in the lectures given to the other group.
Specifically, to explain statistical terms in a humorous way, the lecturer presented the class with various funny cartoons and amusing stories. For example, when teaching the students about the concept of standard deviation, which can be thought of as a measure of how much different members of a group differ from the average for the group, 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 lecturer used humor in a methodical and careful manner, 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 that participated in the humorous lectures had higher scores on their final exam, by around 10 points (out of a 100), meaning 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.
For example, one study 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. Similarly, another study concluded that “Humor can be an effective, multipurpose teaching tool for nurse educators to convey course content, hold students’ attention, relieve anxiety, establish rapport with students, and make learning fun”.
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, as noted above, its findings are supported by much additional research on the topic.
Examples of situations where humor can be beneficial
As we saw above, humor can be beneficial in various ways. Accordingly, there are many situations where humor can be beneficial, such as:
- When you want to cheer someone up.
- When you want to establish rapport with others.
- When you want to make a talk that you’re giving more interesting.
- When you want to make a project that you’ve worked on stand out and draw people’s attention.
In addition, when it comes specifically to the benefits of humor with regard to memory, there are various situations where humor can be beneficial, such as:
- When trying to help yourself learn some material.
- When teaching material to others.
- When designing a slogan that you want people to remember.
- When formulating a key message that you want your audience to keep in mind.
How to use humor effectively
Above, we saw that humor offers various benefits in a wide range of situations. Next, we will see some guidelines regarding how to use humor as effectively as possible.
Specifically, in order to make your humor effective, you want to pay attention to the following things:
- The type of humor. For example, you will generally want to avoid humor that is hurtful and targeted at members of your audience, because such humor can alienate them.
- The style of humor. For example, you will often want to avoid humor that is very subtle or very extreme, because such humor can be less effective than moderate humor.
- The amount of humor. For example, you will often want to avoid using humor too frequently, because doing so can be annoying and can make you appear clownish.
- The timing of the humor. For example, even good humor may end up being inappropriate and ineffective if used at the wrong moment.
- The delivery of the humor. For example, even good humor may end up being inappropriate and ineffective if you deliver it badly.
Below, we will see some specific tips regarding this, which will help you ensure that you use humor as effectively as possible.
Using the right type of humor
To use humor effectively, it’s important to pay attention to the type of humor that you use. 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 humor is associated with improved learning outcomes, a relaxed learning environment, better student evaluations, increased motivation to learn, improved information recall, and increased student satisfaction.
- The use negative humor, and especially aggressive 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 reduced student satisfaction.
Similar patterns, in terms of the effects of positive and negative humor, have been found in other domains, such as workplace management.
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 generally better to err on the side of caution, and avoid using humor that your target audience is likely to find insulting or offensive.
In addition, remember that what is perceived as appropriate will depend on the context and on the audience that you’re presenting 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.
Note: if you use humor incorrectly, in case negatively influence people’s opinion of you, even if they find the humor itself amusing. This can be the case, for example, if you appear “clownish”, as a result of using inappropriate humor or humor that is overly self-deprecating, or if you use humor too frequently.
Using the right style of humor
When it comes to effective use of humor, the style of the humor matters. Specifically:
- Humor generally works best when it’s not too extreme. Often, moderate humor can be more beneficial than extreme humor, for example when it comes to improving people’s memory, and in many cases, even minor humor, such as a funny pun, can help people remember information better. Furthermore, extreme or exaggerated humor can often lead to various issues, such as hurting people’s perception of you.
- Humor works generally works best when it’s not too subtle. While you don’t want to use extreme humor, you should generally also avoid using humor that is too subtle, since some people simply won’t notice it, which renders it ineffective.
As with the type of humor that you use, the optimal style of humor depends on factors such as the context and your audience. For example, in some situations you can be confident that your audience will react well to subtle humor but not to extreme humor, while in other cases you might know that the audience won’t notice subtle jokes at all.
Using humor as an effective memory aid
In addition to the above guidelines, which represent general guidelines on how to use humor effectively, there are also some things to consider when using humor specifically as a way to draw people’s attention to information and improve their memory of it:
- Humor generally works better when it’s related to the information at hand. Accordingly, try to use relevant humor, and especially one that pertains directly to the information that you want to emphasize.
- Humor can serve 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.
- Attention to humorous information sometimes comes at the expense of attention to related 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, and it’s something that you should keep in mind if you use humor as a memory enhancer.
Summary and conclusions
- The humor effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to remember information better when they perceive it as humorous.
- In addition to improved memory, humor is associated with various benefits, such as increased interest, increased energy levels, and reduced negative emotions, which make it an effective tool in a wide range of situations.
- To use humor effectively, you should make sure that the type and style of humor that you use is appropriate; this means, for example, that you will often want to avoid humor that is hurtful toward your audience, or humor that is too extreme.
- To use humor effectively, you should also make sure that the amount of humor that you use is appropriate, and that the timing and delivery of your humor are appropriate too.
- There is no single right way to use humor, since the appropriateness and effectiveness of humor depend on factors such as the circumstances that you’re in, the people that you’re talking to, and the goal that you’re hoping to achieve; it’s up to you to take this into account when deciding if, when, and how to use humor.