Scientists have figured out what makes Dr. Seuss so silly

Posted on December 8, 2015

Photo source: Flickr

Chris Westbury was trying to get work done, and everyone around him kept laughing.

As part of a study on aphasia, a speech and language disorder, the University of Alberta psychology professor was running a study in which test subjects were shown strings of letters and asked to distinguish real words from made-up ones. But every time the (non) word “snunkoople” cropped up, the subjects would collapse with mirth. When the aphasia project ended, he turned his attention to a new research topic: What makes “snunkoople” so funny?

His conclusions, which will be published in the January 2016 issue of the Journal of Memory and Language, form the first ever “quantifiable theory of humor,” Westbury said in a press release. It explains not just the hilariousness of “snunkoople,” but the enduring genius of the world’s wittiest made-up wordsmith, Dr. Seuss.

The theory gets its inspiration from two decidedly un-funny sources: the 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, and math. The idea that things are funny when they violate our expectations originated from Schopenhauer. Termed “incongruity theory”, it explains why people laugh at puns and the sight of a dozen clowns clambering out of a teeny, tiny car — both defy what we expect to hear or see.

This probably held true for funny words too. An unusual non-word like “snunkoople” or Dr. Seuss’s “yuzz-a-ma-tuzz” would be more likely to make people laugh than one that sounds like it could almost be real, like “clester.”

But Westbury and his psychologist colleagues had no way of quantifying incongruity, so they borrowed one from mathematics: Shannon entropy. The gist of the formula, developed by information theorist Claude Shannon, is that it quantified how much entropy, or disorder, is contained within a message. Words with unusual or improbable letter combinations — “snunkoople,” “yuzz-a-ma-tuzz,” “oobleck,” “truffula,” “sneetch” (the last four are all Seuss-isms) — are more disordered, and therefore, Westbury hypothesized, funnier.

To test that idea, Westbury, his psychology department colleagues and two linguists from the University of Tübingen in Germany drew up a list of made-up words, some with high degrees of entropy and some with low ones. They asked subjects to compare two words and choose which was funnier, then rate words’ humorousness on a scale from 1 to 100. Almost always, the more disordered a word, the funnier people found it.

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Category(s):Positive Psychology

Source material from Washington Post

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