The skilled assassin appears before the onlooker’s eyes – everyone knows why he’s here, so they are ready for an onslaught. If one weapon doesn’t work, another might, and the assassin came equipped. In a flash, he’s out of sight – but he appears again with full force, defeating the enemies before they can do anything to stop him. But if you thought this assassin was thirsty for blood, think again. He’s not a master of swords, but a master of words; and the only thing he’s going to be killing is resistance. That’s because, while he’s famous for his skill, he’s known for the word on his business card: Comedian.
Nothing is so dangerous as an idea. People have been killed for ideas since before we had a word for it. Used in the wrong hands, some ideas have ended in bloodshed that stained the streets red. The greatest human suffering was caused by someone who had the idea that they could produce the perfect race by wiping out inferior people, from disabled people, to communists, to Jews.
But to make someone accept an idea is not always an easy task. There are ways to make this more likely, such as by indoctrinating children at an early age, but these are only weapons. And as any weapon-wielding wordsmith knows, weapons don’t always work on the same people. Also, people sometimes evolve beyond the reach of weapons, an example of which we can see in Nate Phelps, the son of the head of the Westboro Baptist Church – a hate-filled church that teaches bigotry to its followers – most of which are family (famously known as “The Most Hated Family in America”). Phelps was taught to hate others all his life, but unlike the rest of his family, he was a critical thinker, and he escaped from the clutches of his relatives one day and never looked back.
Today, people want their ideas to be adopted by people more than ever. The internet has given people the hope that they can make their voices heard from all over the world. That could be anyone from advertisers to trolls, hate-mongers and even, yes, comedians. Something that psychologists have gradually come to understand is that there’s one way to make your message penetrate listeners’ defences – be funny.
This is why a skilled comedian can be the most talented assassin of all.
It’s not hard to think of a comedian who used humour to make serious points on stage. I could name plenty of living comedians to which this applies, but I’ll use the late George Carlin as an example because of his fame. He talked about politics, social issues, and political correctness that inspired generations of future-comedians to make others laugh about the absurdity of reality. He was one of the great minds who gave a voice that had viewers walking away from his shows with a feeling of having genuinely learnt something, if nothing more than another perspective on a serious topic.
That’s not to say that pure-entertainment (i.e., not so socially informed) humour is any lesser in quality or importance. But this kind of social comedy requires a special type of savvy. It requires clever wordplay, developed storytelling skills, or a novel way of presenting an already-existing idea. And of course, it also requires someone to be funny. All of that is quite a far cry from the working comedian’s predecessor – the court jester.
One man who understands the usefulness of humour is Chris Bliss, a stand-up comedian himself. He once spoke at TED, where he used an analogy of a magician to describe the power of the comedian. He explains how humour works from a psychological perspective:
A great piece of comedy is a verbal magic trick, where you think it’s going over here – and then all of a sudden you’re transported over here. And there’s this mental delight that’s followed by the physical response of laughter, which, not coincidentally, releases endorphins in the brain.
And just like that, you’ve been seduced into a different way of looking at something because the endorphins have brought down your defenses. This is the exact opposite of the way that anger and fear and panic, all of the flight-or-fight responses, operate.
Flight-or-fight releases adrenalin, which throws our walls up sky-high. And the comedy comes along, dealing with a lot of the same areas where our defenses are the strongest — race, religion, politics, sexuality — only by approaching them through humor instead of adrenalin, we get endorphins and the alchemy of laughter turns our walls into windows, revealing a fresh and unexpected point of view.
Bliss goes on to explain how humour has been used to get the point across for a wide variety of topics. For example, this comic has been presented around the world to show the foolery of climate-change deniers. As you can see, the use of humour makes it much more effective by simplifying a complex argument.
Another individual who discovered the power of humour is Steve Cody, the co-founder of the marketing firm Peppercom. Cody wrote an article in which he said he used stand-up comedy to transform his business. He started getting lots of experience on stage, and now he has all of his employees learn stand-up techniques and come up with a brief act to perform for the rest of the employees. Not only does this build workplace morale, Cody says, but also “stand-up comedy has helped win more clients for my business.”
If these explanations don’t satisfy you, consider the following paper published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology this June. Researchers used various types of advertisements to see what kind of associations people would have with the brands advertised. While earlier research has found that humour can “counter negative responses during ad processing,” this study specifically looks at how such associations are kept in people’s memory. According to the study:
We separately manipulated two typical aspects of humor processing, that is, distraction and positive affect, and examined their effects on the development of respectively negative and positive brand associations. All experiments were conducted with university students as participants. The results showed that resistance causes negative brand associations (Experiments 1 and 2), and humor prevents the development of these negative brand associations more than nondistracting positive stimuli and neutral stimuli (Experiment 2 and 3). The prevention of negative brand associations was caused by the distractive properties of humor.
Irrespective of resistance, the positive affect engendered by humor enhanced positive brand associations. Experiment 3 showed that distraction and positive affect in humor uniquely contribute to brand preference. Together, these results illustrate that the effect of humor on resistance follows a two-step process: humor forestalls the development of negative brand associations because of its distractive properties (cognitive mechanism), and engenders positive brand associations because of its positive emotional outcomes (affective mechanism). These effects of humor on brand associations jointly promote brand preference.
In other words – just like my assassin analogy suggests, and Bliss explains – when you laugh, your defences are inadvertently lowered. If you were resistant to a message at first, that bit of laughter means that you’re more likely to come away with less negativity and more positivity than if the message was received without humour. The key is simply to make the consumer laugh. After all, who doesn’t like a little humour with their service? I’d be happy if every waiter I met actually made me laugh; and that’s one realization that made Cody gradually more successful.
But let’s not overstate this research. This is a great study, as it pertains to advertisements; but it’s not necessarily the same as a man talking on a stage. And even if it is the same, it might not be to the same extent (the research didn’t investigate comedians, so for now we just don’t know). So I would hate for readers to walk away thinking “Oh, I’d better not laugh!” when listening to someone trying to persuade you. Just because someone makes you laugh doesn’t necessarily mean that a) they’re trying to manipulate you, or even b) you are even being manipulated. Also, consider the fact that something probably won’t be funny to you if it’s so egregiously against your beliefs or just, in your opinion, wrong; so don’t worry.
For example, it doesn’t matter how many times I laugh about jokes regarding the theory of gravity – I’m pretty much sold on that idea. I can’t just be brainwashed by some funny person to suddenly not believe in gravity. If that was possible, I’m sure people would have done it by now. (Though if it was possible, that would probably be the best way to be tortured – let’s face it. In close second would have to be Monty Python’s unexpected Spanish Inquisition.) To demonstrate what I mean, you can watch this video from the popular American TV show “Friends,” in which the main characters argue about science, from Newton to Darwin. See if you change your mind after laughing.
The Bottom Line
If you come away from this article thinking that comedians are dangerous brain-washers who must be stopped, then you missed the point. The notion that just because you laugh means that you automatically accept an idea that someone is trying to disseminate is absolutely wrong. In fact, there’s a joke Bliss has regarding smoking that I don’t agree with, but I found very funny. It’s scientifically wrong and I won’t come away agreeing with him, but I liked it anyways, and I laughed.
Humour is just, as I said, one tool or weapon that someone uses. Most of us have such strong beliefs that no amount of laughter will get us to change our minds about some things. But one point that you should take away is this… sometimes, the difference between accepting a belief and dismissing it is seeing it in a new light. Humour often presents a new way of seeing, which is why if you can be funny, you have a better chance of getting your point across.
Strick M, Holland RW, van Baaren RB, & van Knippenberg A (2012). Those who laugh are defenseless: how humor breaks resistance to influence. Journal of experimental psychology. Applied, 18 (2), 213-23 PMID: 22564085