By Dan Bennett, Consulting Director at Ogilvy Consulting's Behavioural Science Practice


Psychologists have worked for years to understand a single theory behind humour, but it simply can’t be found. To give away the ending, we laugh for many different and incredibly complex reasons.

The act of laughter is incredibly primitive. It’s actually classified as an animal sound rather than a form of speech. Like an animal, the sound comes more from the throat than from the mouth. And we’re not the only animals that laugh; rats, chimps and babies all have humour.

A lot of humour is not an innate behaviour and doesn’t emerge by itself. It’s a socially learned skill that is teased out throughout the parenting process. It’s a fundamentally social activity. In fact, you’re 30 times more likely to laugh if there are people around you, and that increases the closer you are to people. A lot of our laughter isn’t necessarily for a release - it is a communication device that says “I’m part of the group, we share a common interest, I agree”.

What’s interesting is that the person who laughs most is the person talking. This is what is called an adaptive affiliation device. That’s why humour feels so good - not only is it a release of inbuilt tensions, but it’s also because we are now one step closer to remaining in a tribe that will be beneficial for our own lives and the lives of our offspring.

Why do we have humour? It may be to make us a catch. Evolutionary Psychologist (and swinger) Geoffrey Miller suggests that humour may have been beneficial for sexual selection. Not that it’s likely you’ll laugh somebody into the bedroom, but as the theory goes, in evolutionary terms if you were funny it meant you had a more sophisticated linguistic ability and were able to form an idea. As Jimmy Carr says, the ‘aha’ moment is quite indistinguishable from the ‘haha’ moment. It takes very similar skills to generate an idea to a joke, and those sophisticated cognitive skills were very useful.

Many of our evolved tendencies are indirect. In the same way that sexual partners don’t actually find your super car sexually attractive, they do find what your fancy car represents (your wealth, confidence, high social standing) very suitable for their offspring. There have been experiments conducted in which when you ask straight women (and straight men) to rate images of the opposite sex and then photoshop a better car in the background, almost universally the ratings of attractiveness significantly increase. Despite being asked to only take into account the image of the person.

So it turns out one of the reasons we have humour might be to indirectly gain sexual partners and future off spring.

So with that in mind…

I usually meet my girlfriend at 12:59 because I like that one-to-one time.

How does NASA organise a party? They planet.

I told the Inland Revenue I don’t owe them a penny. I live by the seaside.

See you at the bike sheds!