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Why humour does more than make you laugh

17 minutes


Sharyn Roach Anleu

Professor - Matthew Flinders Distinguished Professor - College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Flinders University

David Cheng


Episode Notes

Episode Notes

Have you ever used humour in a potentially inappropriate situation? Did it help? Humour does more than provide a giggle or two. It’s an energiser, an icebreaker and a team builder. In this episode, Professor Sharyn Roach Anleu, Dr David Cheng and the 2020 cartoonist of the year Cathy Wilcox explain its purpose and provide some laughs along the way too. 

[Start of recorded material]

Ginger:                  Oh, my God. I actually laughed to like cry when I watch comedian, Sarah Cooper’s TikTok videos of her lip syncing to the president’s words.

                              Throughout the Trump presidency, a lot of political comedians actually struggled to satirise Trump because what they found was nothing they wrote was more absurd than his own words and his own actions, but Cooper found a way.

                              And that’s the thing about humour, isn’t it? It can achieve so much. It can call out chunky behaviour, but it can also fill you with total joy. It can bring people together, but let’s face it, it can also be classist and exclusionary as well. It can break the ice, and – bet you didn’t know this – it can even make you more productive.

Dr. David Cheng: Humour can be very helpful when it comes to persistence. [01:00] The natural positive vibe that we get from laughing around, joking around, watching funny videos on YouTube can help us and studies have actually shown that it does help us continue on a task which may even be particularly boring or particularly tiring.

Ginger:                  I’m Ginger Gorman and on Seriously Social today, I’m looking at the many functions of humour, like what it can mean to have a joke with a colleague and why you shouldn’t feel so bad about watching a cat video or two at work.

David:                   The idea of mucking around the workplace is not the done thing, but perhaps it should be more acceptable. I mean, we hear about companies, like Google or a lot of the tech companies, having pool tables and PlayStations in there. So, they’re starting to like the idea or [02:00] starting to get used to the idea of having fun in the workplace.

Ginger:                  That’s Dr. David Cheng from the Research School of Management at the Australian National University.

                              Back in 2015, David and his colleague, Associate Professor Lu Wang, published a study on how humour influences persistence.

Dr. David Cheng:                   We measured persistence in a lot of different ways. We did this over quite a number of studies where we gave the participants different tasks. So, some of them were impossible, boring tasks. Some of them were possible tasks, but they also weren’t the most exciting. So, like books of 100 mathematics questions, which they had to do by hand.

                              We told them they could stop whenever they wanted. So, we waited to see how long people went for. And we also looked at whether they did the tasks correctly. So, some people may have persisted longer. They did more questions, but they didn’t do them right or they didn’t do them correctly. And so, we measured not only how long they lasted, but the kind of effort they put in as well.

                              So, we had a few different groups. We had those who [03:00] just watched a normal video, nothing exciting. We had some people who watched a video that made them feel happy and then we had some who watched humour videos, or in our case, snippets of Mr. Bean.

                              And what we found was those who watched the Mr. Bean video, the humour video, they lasted longer than those in the other two groups, often as much as 50% longer. And in terms of the quality of their work, their quality of work was as good, if not better, than those in the other two groups.

Ginger:                  There’s something instinctive about this, David, where it makes sense to me instinctively that you’d have a laugh and then you’d be more willing to do something boring. But why does it actually work?

Dr. David Cheng:                   There are a couple of reasons. Firstly is the humour itself is a bit of a break. So, you’re working hard and even 30 seconds of watching a cat video is just a mental break. So, there’s one element that goes towards the humour.

                              The second is the humour itself. Humour elicits the positive emotion of amusement and amusement is one of these really strong, powerful [04:00] emotions that helps us just to replenish our sort of psychological resources and helps to recover those resources probably a lot better than a lot of other positive emotions.

Ginger:                  And also, in your paper, you said that it had a greater effect or a magnified effect on people with self-enhancing humour as a style. What do you mean by that?

Dr. David Cheng:                   Yeah. So, the reasons for humour basically shows that we all have different senses of humour and we all kind of inherently know that. But some of us use different types of humour. So, some of us like to joke more about ourselves, some of us have more aggressive styles of humour and in our study, we looked at self‑enhancement humour.

                              So, those are people who use jokes to make themselves feel better or to make their group feel better. So, for those particular type of people, they seem to have even more enhanced effects when they experience this sort of innocuous benign types of humour as opposed to for example, aggressive humour or other forms of humour. [05:00]

Ginger:                  Does this mean though then that we should hire really funny people to do boring tasks?

Dr. David Cheng:                   Oh, that’s a good question. Probably not for a couple of reasons. Maybe those funny people may get bored a lot faster, but I think it would be good that when you are engaging in boring tasks or you’re doing something which you know is going to drain you a lot, when you think about how to take a break or when you think about taking a break, watching a funny video might be one where you can do it.

                              I think in the workplace traditionally, in a lot of workplaces, except for maybe hospitality or entertainment, fun and humour is not something we normally do. You don’t expect people to be joking around too much in the accounting office or the law firm. But actually, in these places, it’s a good place where maybe a bit of humour may actually be better than simply just taking a short break and staring up into the sky kind of thing.

Ginger:                  So, there you have it. The research supports it. Accountants and lawyers are actually allowed to have a little laugh once in a while, [06:00] while they’re at work.

                              Humour between colleagues in a law firm is one thing, but how does humour translate in the much more formal setting of court?

Professor Sharyn Roach Anleu:         Court is serious business. People aren’t there for fun. Even though often the comparison is made between theatre and court, there are actually vast differences. Within that, humour functions quite frequently, but in a fairly restrained and sparing way.

Ginger:                  Professor Sharyn Roach Anleu is in a School of Social and Policy Studies at Flinders University and she’s also a Fellow of The Academy of The Social Sciences in Australia. Her book, Judges, Judging and Humour, looks at how humour fits into the day-to-day interactions in a court setting, not just in the courtroom itself, but also behind the scenes.

Professor Sharyn Roach Anleu:                  In one of the chapters of the book, we kind of highlighted [07:00] some of the particular functions of humour, such as breaking the ice, making people feel more comfortable. We did see examples of humour that was very spontaneous, if you like, and a way of circumventing embarrassment or a way of breaking the ice. It could be quite positive.

                              On the other side, we did see examples of sarcasm. And the line between sarcasm and humour is perhaps not a very bright one. And if a judicial officer is joking or bantering with a particular side, the prosecution or the defence, then that may look like a compromise of impartiality and unfairness. So, it is a very, very fine balance, if you like.

Ginger:                  And you’ve got to note, I suppose, that often there’s huge power [08:00] imbalances in court. People are not always from the same socioeconomic backgrounds as the judges and the lawyers, and so forth, and often might be really struggling in life. So, if the judge or the lawyers are using sarcasm and putdowns, it can actually be very damaging and sort of dangerous in terms of justice.

Professor Sharyn Roach Anleu:                  That’s true and that also points to the fact that humour is such an umbrella term. It includes all kinds of humour. Some humour, which is positive, which facilitates interaction, which breaks the ice, which allows people to perhaps feel more comfortable.

                              So, in some of our interviews with judges and magistrates, they talked about the kind of humour that might exist outside of court, in chambers, gallows humour, which would be just totally inappropriate in the courtroom setting, but is also a way of coping [09:00] with very emotionally dense situations that judicial officers and other court staff have to deal with day-in, day-out.

Ginger:                  As a very young cadet journalist, I was sent to the magistrates’ court and there was this extraordinary hearing where a fellow had been in the lockup overnight for being drunk and disorderly.

                              He was in the foyer of the police station the next day, being given his belt and his boots and so forth to put back on and go home. And he proceeded to fart quite deliberately in the direction of the police officer and was then charged for some kind of charge around deliberately making a nuisance of himself in a public place and possibly some degree of assault on the police officer.

                              So, this was what was being disputed in the court on this day, whether you could deliberately fart at someone, whether flatulence was a bodily [10:00] function you could control. And I have to say, I laughed all the way through it and you could see the police officers also trying not to laugh. And there were experts on flatulence and so forth, giving evidence. I found that very funny at the time, but when I related that story to you on the phone, you said perhaps it wasn’t so funny for the defendant.

Professor Sharyn Roach Anleu:                  Yeah. You know, someone can intend to be witty or funny, or a clever play on words, but if the audience doesn’t get it or parts of the audience doesn’t get it, was it humour, or was it failed humour? And where does that leave us?

Ginger:                  Personally, one of my favourite functions of humour is in political commentary. Political satire can be a really powerful tool for engaging people. Take the good old newspaper political cartoon, for example. Sometimes, you can look at a single cartoon and understand [11:00] a political scandal better than if you read every serious think piece under the sun.

Cathy Wilcox:       It isn’t always humour as such, but contradictions, and ironies and hypocrisies.

Ginger:                  Cathy Wilcox has been a cartoonist for the Sydney Morning Herald since around 1989.

Cathy:                   The time in comedy is what we know and there’s so much that we know and when you can find a gag that kind of pulls in all this stuff that we already know and adds to it the latest piece of information that we’ve received, that’s quite a happy cartoon. I’m pretty pleased when I can do that, when I can bring all that stuff in and I can depend also on the reader having that backstory as well.

                              A cartoon is only successful if anyone gets it. It may be interesting and really say something that I want to say, but it’s not going to work if other people look at it and don’t have a clue what I’m talking about. So, I do have to be able to [12:00] think about the ways that it can be seen, or could be seen, or could be interpreted and so forth.

                              And I have to be conscious that pretty much everything that I put in it is meaningful. It’s sort of a concise piece of communication, which nevertheless leaves a gap between what I’m saying and the reader’s apprehension of it. I really enjoy that gap. I really enjoy treating my reader as an intelligent person and giving them the work to do to understand the cartoon, but not in a way that kind of treats them like, “Well, if you don’t get this, you’re a fool.”

Ginger:                  What I see you doing is often taking something that we are bored with, tired of as a public, an issue that might be ongoing or tiresome, or we’re tuned out to for whatever reason as individuals. We’ve got busy lives, hectic lives. We had this terrible year with the fires and with COVID. To me, it’s almost like you’re giving us a stone and helping us turn around [13:00] so we can see all the beautiful colours in it, or the interesting colours in it or the unusual things in it. And I wonder how you think humour really helps us think critically in that way.

Cathy:                   Hopefully, it provokes us at least to think again about something and challenges our assumptions about something. People make assumptions all the time and they get trapped in their assumptions of, “Oh, well, this is how it is. So, I couldn’t possibly do that,” or whatever.

                              And to challenge assumptions, that’s the fun logic puzzle that I play with, with my cartoons. “Okay, if this is how that one, how this thing works, what if you take that logic and apply it to this other thing?”

                              “Oh, okay.”

                              “So, how does your reasoning stack up now?”

                              And so, it sort of, I guess, forces people to [14:00] go, “Oh, okay,” and perhaps challenge their own fixed ideas by showing them the weak points in them.

Ginger:                  And often something that appears very straightforward, or we take at face value is in fact ludicrous under a different light. Like I’ve been obsessively watching the American humour of Sarah Cooper lip syncing Donald Trump. And I was trying to work out why am I finding this so funny that I’m crying? It’s often just to be sometimes, the hilarity of it is also the clarifying moment and it’s just simply putting a different light on it.

Cathy:                   Yes, yes. Absolutely. To be the child, who points out that the emperor has no clothes, it’s the eternal role. It’s the eternal role and I totally embrace that child because I know that that’s [15:00] – I’m still seven in a sense.

Ginger:                  I can just hear the delight in your voice when you’re saying that.

Cathy:                   I can remember being seven and being bewildered at things that adults said or did and thinking, oh – and other kids, of course, too. But that sense of going, “Well, that’s not right, and that’s not fair.” Like many kids have this strong sense of justice and very often, that sense of justice, which many may well carry into adulthood and whatever, and then they’ll go and join politics, or they’ll get into business or they’ll get into some industry. And then the people around them will tell them, “Yeah, sunshine, you know. Lose that delusion. That’s, you know… What are you? A Pollyanna? You have to accept that things are not like that. That’s not the way business works or that’s not the way politics works.”

                              And so, they have to actually perform [16:00] this override of their sense of justice and what’s right to fit into a functioning system. And so, I want to be the kid, who says, “No. I’m not going to accept that. That’s crooked. That’s rotten.” And in so doing, I guess that’s what keeps the fresh eye. And the Sarah Cooper thing is going, “You think that’s normal? Let me show you how not normal that is.”

Ginger:                  Thanks for listening to Seriously Social. I’m Ginger Gorman. Don’t forget. That Seriously Social is not just a podcast. Check out our website at for videos and articles and all of the links that you’ll need to connect with us on social media.

                              Next time, being an effective boss. What actually is strong leadership and also, is there a perfect approach to maintaining productivity [17:00] and wellbeing at the same time?”

[End of recorded material 17:03]

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