Tuesday, December 1, 2015

mathematical theory for humor

Comedians who’ve spent countless hours at open mic nights, take note: Scientists at the University of Alberta have established the world’s first mathematical theory of humour.

Researchers have discovered that what qualifies as funny might not be unique to each person as we may think. Their findings, ‘Telling the world’s least funny jokes: On the quantification of humour as entropy’, were published in the Journal of Memory and Language.

The inspiration for the study came from earlier research, where test subjects with aphasia were asked to review letter strings and point out whether they were real words or not. Psychology professor Chris Westbury, lead author of the recent study, noticed that participants would laugh when they heard some of the made-up non-words, like snunkoople. It made him question how nonsensical words could be so inherently funny.

Westbury suspected that the answer lay in the word’s entropy—a mathematical measure of how ordered or predictable it is. The further a non-word is from being a word, the funnier it is. One only has to pick up a Dr. Seuss book to understand that.

“We did show, for example, that Dr. Seuss—who makes funny non-words—made non-words that were predictably lower in entropy. He was intuitively making lower-entropy words when he was making his non-words,” says Westbury. “It essentially comes down to the probability of the individual letters. So if you look at a Seuss word like yuzz-a-ma-tuzz and calculate its entropy, you would find it is a low-entropy word because it has improbable letters like Z.”

While the findings might not put a dent into Chris Rock’s stand-up set, it could prove useful for commercial applications, like product naming. 
“I would be interested in looking at the relationship between product names and the seriousness of the product,” notes Westbury. “For example, people might be averse to buying a funny-named medication for a serious illness—or it could go the other way around.”