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"His work on the tradeoffs people make in their lives is incredibly important and should become more and more relevant," says Dan Ariely, one of the leading behavioral economists and author of the best-selling book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. "We think it's not right to put a price on somebody's life or somebody's health. At the same time, in practical terms we do it all the time. For example, do we let people buy points for pollution? Do we make carbon offsets just another tradeoff, or a market commodity?"
But McGraw isn't just interested in how people act illogically with money — he's interested in how they act illogically all the time. A perfect example of this popped up two years ago, when he became fascinated with what could be the most illogical human characteristic of all.
While giving a talk at Tulane University in 2008 about how moral violations cause disgust, McGraw mentioned a news story about a church that was giving away a Hummer H2 to a lucky member of its congregation. The audience cracked up — and then one person raised a hand with a question: "You say that moral violations cause disgust, and yet we're all laughing. Why is that?"
McGraw was stumped. "I'd never thought about it," he says.
So he decided to figure it out.
Deep in the heart of CU's business school, four student volunteers file into a large white conference room, ready to take part in one of McGraw's most bizarre experiments yet. Once the test subjects have signed the appropriate consent and release forms, a somber-faced research assistant dims the lights and, using an overhead projector, starts screening a clip from the hit comedy Hot Tub Time Machine.
After watching ten minutes of graphic scatological gags and off-color sex jokes, the four students are asked a series of questions about the film. Did they find the scene funny in which BMW keys were removed from a dog's ass? What about the line "A taxidermist is stuffing my mom"? And how about the part where a character breaks his catheter and sprays urine on everybody? Did that scene make them feel uncomfortable?
While the questions may seem like fun and games, the results of this experiment will be taken very seriously. After all, laughter doesn't just create social bonds, alleviate conflict and allay stress; among other benefits, it's also big business. Those dog-anus and urine-spray jokes helped Hot Tub Time Machine gross over $100 million in box-office receipts worldwide. More than 20 percent of all television commercials use some form of humor. And the Cheezburger Network, a chain of popular humor sites including Lolcats and FAIL Blog, receives over 200 million page views every month, with the average visitor spending nine minutes a day trolling for laughs.
Humor may be easier to find than ever before, but insightful explanations of it are not. When McGraw first started investigating humor, he discovered that a multi-disciplinary organization, the International Society for Humor Studies, had been looking into the subject for several decades. But aside from putting out such intriguing journal articles as "Funny as Hell: Christianity and Humor Reconsidered" and "The Great American Lawyer Joke Explosion," the group was nowhere close to crying "Eureka!"
"People have been talking about humor for 2,500 years now, and we don't have definite answers for pretty basic questions," says Elliot Oring, ISHS president. Part of the challenge is humor's complexity. On the one hand, it's universal: Everyone laughs, from babies on up, as do chimps and other primates. On the other hand, what seems to make people laugh varies widely based on culture, age, gender and myriad other factors. The Romans apparently thought lettuce was downright hilarious, while fifteenth-century papal scribes at the Vatican were partial to stories about guys drinking pee. And then there's the conundrum that everybody everywhere agrees that Jerry Lewis isn't funny — except if you happen to be French.
In 2002, a British psychology professor who wanted to discover the world's funniest joke created a website where people could submit and rate jokes. The winning entry, after 40,000 submissions and 1.5 million ratings, wasn't exactly uproarious — it begins with two New Jersey hunters out in the woods and ends with one of them shooting the other to death — but it was general enough that at least everybody got the point.
McGraw found that over the centuries, valiant efforts had been made to explain why we laugh at some things and not at others, but no one seemed to get it exactly right. Plato and Aristotle, for example, developed the superiority theory of humor, based on the idea that people laugh at the misfortune of others. But while their premise seems to explain teasing and slapstick, it doesn't work for, say, a knock-knock joke. Sigmund Freud had a different view, arguing that humor was a way for people to release psychic energy pent up from repressed sexual and violent thoughts. This so-called relief theory works for dirty jokes, of course, but doesn't explain linguistic humor, such as puns.
These days, many experts subscribe to the incongruity theory of humor, which states that humor arises when people discover there's an inconsistency between what they've been led to believe and the actual outcome. Jokes with punchlines fit into this category remarkably well, but even the incongruity theory falls short of explaining why people laugh when they're tickled.