Ask anyone who has ever laughed at an actuary joke and they will confirm that humour is in the eye of the chuckler…in other words, what we find funny is completely subjective. But research scientists have a different take on this and came up with a quantifiable theory of what’s funny – at least when it comes to words which give us the giggles.
Author Chris Westbury conducted experiments to investigate his hypothesis that it is possible to use a word’s entropy (a mathematical measure of how ordered and predictable its structure is) to draw general conclusions about the sorts of words that people find funny. It was found that made-up words with lower entropy (i.e. words that are statistically less probable or less like real words, like snunkoople or hablump) were perceived as more amusing.
“So if you look at a Seuss word like yuzz-a-ma-tuzz and calculate its entropy, you would find it is a low-entropy word because it has improbable letters like Z,” Westbury said. The idea that humour correlates with incongruity and surprise isn’t new, but the study claims to be the first quantitative test of German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s 1818 theory that humour results from violated expectations.
“The most important finding was not just that some non-words are funny and they’re weird when they are, but that there’s actually a consistent relationship between how funny they are and how weird they are,” Westbury said. “We showed there was a linear relationship.”
The study was, “conducted out of pure curiosity,” according to Westbury, nonetheless it could have implications for detecting how those with brain damage or mood struggles experience humour. The research could also inform product naming.
Basically Westbury has only confirmed what we actuaries have known all along – everything, even humour, can be explained by a mathematical formula. QED. You can read more about this study in the article Telling the world’s least funny jokes: On the quantification of humor as entropy.