Although humor may seem too abstract to ever be quantifiable, researchers from the University of Alberta have created a mathematical model that aims to do the impossible - quantify it - in their recent paper, making it the first ever to present a quantifiable theory of humor.
"This really is the first paper that's ever had a quantifiable theory of humor," Chris Westbury, lead author of the study, said in a press release. "There's quite a small amount of experimental work that's been done on humor."
The study is based on what the researchers call the "snunkoople effect," referring to people laughing at made-up non-words, which is what pushed Westbury to investigate a possible quantifiable theory of humor. This investigation lead to the hypothesis that entropy - a measure of how ordered or predictable something is - may be the key to understanding why made-up words seem to be inherently more funny than those that aren't.
"We did show, for example, that Dr. Seuss - who makes funny non-words-made non-words that were predictably lower in entropy," said Westbury. "He was intuitively making lower-entropy words when he was making his non-words. It essentially comes down to the probability of the individual letters. 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."
The first part of the study asked subjects to compare the humor level of two non-words, while the second part asked subjects to rate just one non-word in terms of humor. Westbury and his researchers predicted the words that they thought subjects would find the most funny based on entropy ratings.
"The results show that the bigger the difference in the entropy between the two words, the more likely the subjects were to choose the way we expected them to," said Westbury. "To be able to predict with that level of accuracy is amazing. You hardly ever get that in psychology, where you get to predict what someone will choose 92 per cent of the time."
Predicting humor can help researchers understand the different ways that various ideas and words can be funny and have many implications for psychology.