It’s all in the name of science… The British Association for the Advancement of Science (which is the AAAS’s counterpart across the pond), set out on a bold mission — to find the world’s funniest joke. Well, not quite, they were studying humor and its dependence on culture, gender, age, etc. To this end, they invited people to submit jokes to their website, and they set up a rating system so people could vote for their favorites. The project’s called Laughlab — visit their website for more information.

They looked across several countries and, I gotta say, the US rated pretty low in terms of how funny we found the jokes. What gives? Germany won out with an easier sense of humor. It was also interesting that the British-oriented folks (UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand) preferred jokes with word-play in them. Americans and Canadians preferred jokes where someone looked stupid (letting us feel superior).

They also did some MRI scans of people’s brains while they read the joke, and saw that an area of the brain behind the frontal lobes (prefrontal cortex) was important in understanding why a joke is funny. Fittingly, people with damage to this area tend to lose their sense of humor. The website says:

Most jokes work because they surprise us – they set us thinking in one direction, and then we hear the punchline and realise that there is a completely different way of seeing the situation.

For example, take the old joke:

Two fish in a tank.
One turns to the other and says ‘Do you know how to drive this?’

The first line makes us think the fish are in a fish tank – then the second makes us realise that they actually are in an army tank!

The part of the brain shown in the image above (called the Prefrontal cortex) plays a vital role in the type of flexible thinking needed to understand a joke. It makes sense of the punchline and produces a strong sense of surprise.

So, what was the winning joke? Here it is (I’d heard it before), and you can find more on their website.

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, “My friend is dead! What can I do?”. The operator says “Calm down. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says “OK, now what?”

I have to admit, this joke is one of those that I kind of smirk and shake my head… I know it’s funny but it doesn’t make me laugh, you know?

Here’s what the Laughlab people say about why this joke is funny:

The joke is interesting because it works across many different countries, appeals to men and women, and young and old alike. Many of the jokes submitted received higher ratings from certain groups of people, but this one had real universal appeal.

Also, we find jokes funny for lots of different reasons – they sometimes make us feel superior to others, reduce the emotional impact of anxiety-provoking events, or surprise us because of some kind of incongruity. The hunters joke contains all three elements – we feel superior to the stupid hunter, realise the incongruity of him misunderstanding the operator and the joke helps us to laugh about our concerns about our own mortality.