The Frontal Cortex

Laughter and Power

Michel Foucault wouldn’t be surprised to learn that yes, even comedy is defined by power-relations. Here’s Ellen Horne of Radio Lab:

Tyler Stillman, a psychologist at Florida State University, did a series of studies showing that laughter isn’t always about how funny something is. He found that when a boss tells a bad joke to an employee, the employee laughs. But when the employee tells a bad joke to a boss, well, you can hear pin drop.

The Radio Lab team then decided to replicate the study in their own office. The joke really isn’t funny, but it is funny watching the influence of social dynamics on laughter.


  1. #1 6EQUJ5
    February 20, 2008

    Being well aware of this, every time I get called for jury duty, when the judge tells his opening joke to lighten things up, I stare at him unblinking with a dead expression. The judge never fails to notice the one face in that sea of faces that doesn’t fit.

  2. #2 Rachael
    February 20, 2008

    That’s a great video!

    RE the whole Boss/Employee thing, I’d have two (far too sciencey) questions:

    1) Do the people actually find the joke funnier or do they just know they should laugh because it’s the boss?

    2) Is their mood upon entering the conversation likely to be different? Maybe the boss gets slightly annoyed whenever an employee stops them for questions/time. I think in general people are pleased to be addressed by a someone they perceive (for whatever reason) as higher up than they are.

    But yeah I’d say this matches up with experience. Every time I hold a recitation as a TA my students find me hilarious. And I’m not a funny person.

  3. #3 YoungFrankie
    February 20, 2008

    The best bit was when the last employee ended the joke with the classic “ba-dum-chh”

    How did she not get a laugh out of that?

  4. #4 Elizabeth
    February 20, 2008

    I often told jokes, somewhat clean, silly things — somewhat unexpected for a graduate school audience.

    One of my favorite was (easy to remember):
    What did the fish say when it bumped into the wall?

    Reference this study, I imagine you could find the same observing the student / teacher relationship. Overall, I am surprised people studied this… common sense to me.

    What did the fish say when it bumped into the wall?


  5. #5 Elizabeth
    February 20, 2008

    An apt story:

    After having dug to a depth of 10 meters last year, Scottish scientists found traces of copper wire dating back 100 years and came to the conclusion that their ancestors already had a telephone network more than 100 years ago.

    Not to be outdone by the Scots, in the weeks that followed, British scientists dug to a depth of 20 meters, and shortly after, headlines in the UK newspapers read: ‘British archaeologists have found traces of 200- year-old copper wire and have concluded that their ancestors already had an advanced high-tech communications network a hundred years earlier than the Scots.’

    One week later, ‘The Mayo Crier,’ a northwest Irish newsletter, reported the following: ‘After digging as deep as 30 meters in peat bogs near Killala, Paddy O’Rourke, a self-taught archeologist, reported that he found absolutely nothing.

    Paddy has therefore concluded that 300 years ago Ireland had already gone wireless.’

  6. #6 Luna_the_cat
    February 20, 2008


    Elizabeth — Scots ARE British. I think you are looking for the nationality “English” to contrast to Scots.

  7. #7 Lassi Hippeläinen
    February 21, 2008

    Hrmph. As an engineer in communication systems, I have to point out that in the original story an engineer from Siemens boasted about copper wires. An engineer from Ericsson noted that in Sweden they had found some shards of glass in the ground, which proved that ancient Swedes used fiber networks. And the engineer from Nokia…

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