Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

Two psychologists walk into a bar

October 21st, 2010

One says, “Do you remember Dr. Pavlov?”

The other replies, “I can’t recall the face, but the name rings a bell…”


I laughed so hard milk came out my noseYou’ve probably heard about some of the health benefits of laughter. Among other effects, it can reduce anxiety, improve blood flow and blood vessel health, help with coping after bereavement (I can attest to that one) and may even boost your immune system.

More relevant to those of us trying to change the world is that laughter can also increase cooperation and altruistic behaviour toward strangers.

In an unpublished study, Mark Van Vugt and Robin Dunbar showed participants either a funny video or a serious one, then had them play an investment game with strangers. Each person was given about $5 that they could either keep or invest in a “group fund” that would double the money but divide it among the group. (In this kind of game, if everyone invests all their money, each group member gets more than if they all keep it – but the payoff is even higher for an individual who doesn’t invest when everyone else does. See my earlier post on cooperation for more details.)

Those participants who had laughed a lot while watching the video were more likely to invest more in the group fund – a measure of increased cooperation and decreased self-interest.

The use of humour in a negotiation can also make compromise easier. In a 1981 study, Karen O’Quin and Joel Aronoff had participants negotiate with a seller over the price of a piece of art. They found that when the seller added, “…and I’ll throw in my pet frog” after stating a final price, purchasers made much greater compromises in purchase price, regardless of the difference between the purchaser’s original offer and the final price.

A 1974 study found that exposing angry people to humorous cartoons reduced the level of aggression they showed afterward. A 2004 study found that doing tasks designed to make them laugh made people feel closer to the people they were working with.

It looks as though adding humour is generally a Good Thing when you want people to be generous or to work well together. There’s a caveat, though: don’t use humour that puts down other groups. A Canadian study discovered that compared with reading non-disparaging jokes, reading aloud jokes that put down other people (Newfoundlanders or “Newfies” in this study) made people rate the put-down group more negatively with respect to intelligence.

I can think of plenty of times where humour has made me more willing to do things I didn’t want to do, but I’ve never tried deliberately adding humour to a project and seeing whether it makes a difference. If you can think of any ways to do this, would you let me know in the comments? Please? I’ll throw in my pet frog.

2 comments on 'Two psychologists walk into a bar'

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  1. Rob

    21 Oct 10 at 1:30 pm

    Well, when you put it that way…


    Carol Reply:

    Damn, now I have to buy a frog.


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