Reference: Shin, H., Cotter, K. N., Christensen, A. P., & Silvia, P. J. (2018). Creative fixation is no laughing matter: The effects of funny and unfunny examples on humor production. The Journal of Creative Behavior.
Almost everyone has had at least one experience where they had to endure a groan-worthy joke from a relative (let’s face it—it’s usually dad!). If you found yourself in such a situation, you might have then tried to think of a better joke to tell. Maybe you were successful, and maybe you weren’t. But what was the effect of hearing that bad joke on your own joke production? Shin and colleagues set out to find out how exposure to good or bad jokes affects people’s ability to produce their own funny jokes.
The current experiment draws on work on fixation, which is when exposure to information hinders creative thinking. For example, if someone is told a knock-knock joke and then asked to think of new joke, they may be more likely to think of a knock-knock joke than a different type of joke. Previous work has shown that people experience fixation when they are asked to think of new ideas and provided with examples—ostensibly to help them—in that their ideas contain features of the examples (1). Interestingly, people demonstrate this fixation effect even when they are told to produce ideas as different as possible from the examples!
Even though people fall prey to this fixation effect, exposure to examples is not always detrimental to creative thinking. In fact, sometimes being shown examples increases people’s creativity because it provides them with a basis from which to expand on an idea that they would not have had otherwise (e.g., 2). So sometimes, being provided with examples if helpful. But being provided with bad examples, or ideas to avoid, is less understood. Thus, the aims of the current study by Shin and colleagues were twofold: 1) to examine the effect of different types of examples (good and bad) on humor production, and 2) to expand the study of creativity to the study of humor.
In a single experiment, all participants were asked to produce their own funny jokes in response to two open-ended prompts (e.g., “Seriously, this class is so boring…”). Participants were split into three groups, with one group seeing funny examples, one group seeing unfunny examples, and one group seeing no examples before coming up with their own jokes. All examples were taken from a previous study in which responses to the joke prompts were rated for funniness. Each participant generated one joke per prompt and were allowed as much time as they wanted to create the joke. Researchers then rated all responses for funniness and similarity to the examples, with funniness rated on a 5-point scale and similarity categorically rated as no overlap, some overlap, or a repeat of the example.
Surprisingly, participants who saw both funny and unfunny examples produced funnier jokes than participants who saw no examples. Even more interestingly, participants demonstrated little evidence of fixation (as measured by similarity ratings) on both funny and unfunny examples, with similarity ratings being very similar between both groups that saw examples. The authors argue that seeing examples—regardless of their quality—provides a starting point from which participants can branch from, which naturally increases the funniness of a joke.
In sum, though your dad’s jokes many be unfunny repeats of things you’ve heard before, they might actually be priming your ability to think of a funnier joke after hearing it! So, next time you find yourself in a social situation that calls for jokes, maybe take a stab at telling one after someone else has gone—you might just get the laugh you’re looking for.
Featured Images: (1) Featured image access from Pexels. Accessed 12/16/2018. https://www.pexels.com. (2) Figure 1 and Table 1 from Shin et al. (2018) adapted with permission.
(1) Smith, S. M., Ward, T. B., & Schumacher, J. S. (1993). Constraining effects of examples in a creative generation task. Memory & Cognition, 21(6), 837-845.
(2) Marsh, R. L., Landau, J. D., & Hicks, J. L. (1996). How examples may (and may not) constrain creativity. Memory & Cognition, 24(5), 669-680.