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The humour effect: Be funny or else

Updated: Aug 29, 2022

This is part of our series on biases in the workplace. A full list of bias blog posts can be found here: If you're biased and you know it clap your hands.


There's an energising activity I really love running in workshops: The Alphabet Game. It's always good. Here's how it works: You ask each person to choose a letter of the alphabet and type it in the chat. They then have five minutes to find something in their house that starts with that letter. Bonus points for uniqueness. When they come back each person shares their object and tells a story / memory around it.

I've played this a few times. And here are four examples I can remember:

  1. X - (someone always chooses X) - boX. Fair enough. The story? This was their microwave box. Person and his partner had just moved over from the UK. For some reason they decided in the limited amount of space they had to bring their microwave. They even got rid of some clothes and shoes to bring it over. So now they have a microwave, from the UK, which requires an adaptor and doesn't work very well.

  2. X - (seriously, someone always chooses X) - gifts they'd received from their eX-partner. He then proceeded to hilariously share some of the background behind the gifts and to justify why he kept them. Hearing him describe why he kept an oversized teddy bear was quite good.

  3. V - a 'V'. Here's the story with this one - and apologies for the vulgarity. This woman choose V and when we all got back in her camera had stopped working. Here's how the conversation went: Her: I chose V and now I'm holding my V. Isn't this a great little V? Can everyone see it? me: No your camera isn't working. Do you want to maybe describe what you have? Her: Well it's like two-three inches. White. Very cute. Hold on let me get my camera on so you can see my V... Now my mind has already gone into the gutter and I can see by the other faces on screen so had everyone else's... me: Oh, sorry, [name] I'm just going to stop you there and get you to get some clarity. What "V" are you talking about?!?! Her: It's a white letter 'V' off my daughter's wall - her name is Maeve and she has it spelt out in these block letters over her bed. phew....

  4. Z - Zebra toy. The story? This dad knew his two-year old daughter had a miniature zebra toy - part of a zoo set. But, he had no idea where it was. We were honestly crying with laughter as he described interrogating his daughter to beat the five-minute timer. Sweetie...where's your zebra toy? Honey, show daddy where your zebra is. No, I don't want to play with that can I play with the zebra? Sweetie...OK the zebra. OK, OK.!!? Just tell daddy where you put the zebra. THE ZEBRAAAAAAA.

What do all four of these have in common? They had us laughing.

I can vividly remember each of these four individuals telling their stories.

Why are these memories so clear?

It's because humour and laughter is one of the most powerful things we can share with others.

Laugh more, live longer?

Funny or Die is a video production company and website. But is it really life and death stuff? Maybe.

A Norwegian study connected having a good sense of humour and lots of deep laughter to an increased lifespan. Want to live longer? Laugh more. And make others laugh more.

Wow - maybe laughter is truly the best medicine.

This chemical laugh lift has physical, mental and spiritual benefits. Laughing strengthens your immune system, improves your heart health, boosts your mood, diminishes pain, lessens stress and reduces anxiety. Not too shabby.

No wonder we love to laugh so much. Your ability to laugh and make others laugh has a massive impact on the quality of your life. This might explain a little bit about why our brains are so wired towards humour and laughter.

Our brain is biased towards humour

Think back to times you really laughed. Like almost-pee-your-pants-type laughs. Have-to-stop-because-it-hurts-type laughs. Those deep belly laughs. Those memories stick with us.

Our brain actually searches for humour. To be technical, humour produces a reaction in the mesolimbic dopaminergic reward system – it makes us feel very good indeed. We get a surge of dopamine - and we get used to receiving our regular dose of drugs. It lifts us.

And this is an example of our brains bias towards humour: the humour effect. The humour effect means that humorous things are more easily and accurately remembered than non-humorous ones.

We can't possibly process and remember everything. Therefore things that are funny, bizarre, or visually-striking stick out more than ordinary/unfunny things. So we feel happier, more positive and we remember what happened more.

More laughter, better work

The average Kiwi will work 90,000 hours in their lifetime. We might as well enjoy that time! And more than enjoy, we might as well be the best we can be when we're there!

In which case - humour and laughter in as one of our cultural musts.

Humour brings people together. In fact, laughing together is one of the strongest connectors people can share together. In a previous blog, Hilary describes four reasons humour is so positively powerful at work:

  1. Everyone sees the same perspective

  2. To relive the same emotions, we repeat funny stories and situations we find amusing over and over again.

  3. It uses and rewards significant dimensions of the brain.

  4. It helps build a team’s identity.

Want to get people more engaged at work? Get them laughing more.

The skill of humour

Andrew Tarvin's TEDTalk will explain this way better - so take a break and watch it.

But here's the TL;DW (too long; didn't watch) version:

  • Humour and laughter are great for us individually.

  • Humour and laughter are great for teams as well.

  • Everyone can be funny and make people laugh.

  • Figure out your humour style and work towards that.

  • Practice - do little things to make things a bit funnier - look up quotes, add a photo, share a story

  • Fake it til you make it.

But even if you’re not ready to try creating humor, you can still benefit from humor by being a shepherd of humor. You can share quotations out, you can share a TED talk that you enjoyed, or you can use images in your presentations.

As the Joker in Batman asks, Why so serious?

It's the same questions we should be asking at work. Why so serious?

People are biased towards humour. So how can you bring more fun, humour and laughter into your work? It's one of the biggest influencing tools you have!


Glaser, J. (2014). Conversational intelligence. Bibliomotion.

Hamel, G. (2012). What matters now.

King, M. (2021). Social chemistry. Dutton.

Rodriguez, Tori. "Laugh Lots, Live Longer." Scientific American. Published in September 2016.

Tarvin, Andrew. “The Skill of Humor | Andrew Tarvin | TEDxTAMU.” TEDx Talks. Recorded on 14 June 2017, 19:16.

The Behaviours Agency. “The Humour effect: The Behavioural Bias Series” The Behaviours Agency. Published on 12 February 2019.


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