Make Them Laugh: The Role of Humor in Learning and Behavior Change
Laughing and Learning
It’s no secret that laughing is contagious. Laughter is a sign of empathy, a response that elicits a sense of community by lowering our defenses and bringing us together. It’s also a proven stress reliever known to activate our brains’ dopamine reward systems and boost our overall mood (Sarah Henderson, Edutopia, 2015).
Huh… A strong sense of community? Positive mental outlook? Sounds like the makings of an ideal learning environment! *high five*
There’s a growing body of research on the role humor plays in learning and behavior change. Zak Stambor from the American Psychological Association analyzes various studies in his cover story “How Laughing Leads to Learning” Monitor on Psychology (Vol 37, No. 6). His findings boil down to the following:
“When used effectively, incorporating humor in a learning setting can reduce anxiety, boost participation, and increase an individual’s motivation to focus on the material at hand.”
More specifically, Stambor outlines a study by Dr. Randy Garner from Sam Houston State University, which found that “well-planned, appropriate, contextual humor can help students ingrain information.” All this to say, these findings and those similar reinforce the idea that infusing a bit of humor can significantly influence positive learning outcomes.
Humor in Training
Here are five ways humor can positively impact learning outcomes:
1. Easy Access for Learners
Humor is innately human. From illness, to natural disaster, to political uprising, a sense of humor proves to be one of the most sustainable sources of healing, inspiration, and entertainment. It sharpens our understanding and whittles down complex messages into something we can understand.
At the beginning of a training session, use humor as a vehicle to alleviate any tension and establish a communal atmosphere. We’ll talk more about that in #4 below…
2. Releasing Negativity
Humor inherently instills a positive outlook. Think of it as an appeal to your audience saying, “Hey, you. We get that you’ve been churning out deliverables all day (thanks for that, btw) and training is probably the last thing you want to be doing right now, so here’s a little something to make it worth your while!” It shows your people you 1) acknowledge their position and 2) genuinely value their development in this particular area.
3. Preventing Boredom
If engaging content is the gate to behavior change, then humor is the skeleton key. Done well, it works (almost) every time. Adding a little comedy rolls a wave of energy into a learning environment. It’s refreshing and brings everyone back into the moment. Again—more on this in a bit…
4. Building Community
As we stated initially, laughter is an empathetic response. Empathy happens to be a breeding ground for community. Therefore, if humor (which elicits laughter) yields empathy and empathy yields community, then by the transitive property, weaving humor into training sessions can assist in fostering a community of learners. *math*
Incorporating humor can make individuals feel more included. It increases mutual trust, strengthening team dynamic and overall communication—great news if your training sessions require hands-on group work!
5. Uncovering Hidden Bias
It’s theorized that what we find amusing identifies the ways in which we believe we are superior to others (i.e. our hidden biases). It’s important to keep in mind that while humor can be used to both entertain and fend off boredom, it can also be a non-threatening way to uncover human truths. Regarding training, humor can reveal acute biases that get in the way of our work and lives (think: satire).
But wait—what if I’m not funny?
Forced humor may be worse than not using it at all. Whether it was a punchline gone rogue, a cringe-worthy pun, or a bad ice breaker, we’ve all experienced an unsatisfactory attempt at humor at some point.
Luckily, you don’t have to be a comedian to make people laugh. When incorporating humor into your training sessions, the goal is not to “be funny,” but to provide the learners with something they can relate to. Finding this common ground helps individuals further comprehend the topic at hand, reinforcing their training.
So… If you’re thinking about incorporating humor into your training sessions (which hopefully you are, given we’ve been talking about it for 690 words) we’ll leave you with a few pre-game tips:
Tip #1: Look for humor in the every-day.
Humor can be found all around us—odd encounters in the check-out line, commute woes, your favorite sitcom, etc. Say you want to start off the session with a short, quippy anecdote; look for inspiration in those everyday moments, stories, and jokes relevant to the training topic and tie them in.
Tip #2: Don’t overdo it.
Don’t let an attempt to engage your audience overwhelm your takeaway message. You don’t want your jokes to leave your learners thinking the entire session was a joke. Therefore, use just enough humor to help the audience relate and recall the key takeaways. No need to stress over an entire stand-up routine.
Tip #3: Use content that effectively uses humor.
If all else fails and you’re losing sleep over generating your own funny material, borrow someone else’s! Some of our best-selling films use humor to make training topics more relatable, enjoyable, and memorable. Incorporating them allows you to spend less time worrying about being funny and more time focusing on driving your message home.
Below is a list of MPC crowd favorites that weave in humor to engage learners. Find one to use in your next training session!
- Bitterly, T. B., A.W. Brooks, and M. E. Schweitzer. "Risky Business: When Humor Increases and Decreases Status." (pdf) Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 112, no. 3 (March 2017): 431–455. (https://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Pages/item.aspx?num=51589)
- Henderson, Sarah. “Laughter and Learning: Humor Boosts Retention.” Edutopia, 31 Mar. 2015, www.edutopia.org/blog/laughter-learning-humor-boosts-retention-sarah-henderson.
- Stambor, Zak. “How Laughing Leads to Learning.” Monitor on Psychology Vo. 37, No. 6, American Psychological Association, June 2006, www.apa.org/monitor/jun06/learning.aspx.
- Janet M. Gibson Professor of Cognitive Psychology, Grinnell College. “Getting Serious about Funny: Psychologists See Humor as a Character Strength.” The Conversation, 25 Jan. 2018, https://theconversation.com/getting-serious-about-funny-psychologists-see-humor-as-a-character-strength-61552.
- Beard, Alison. “Leading with Humor.” Harvard Business Review, Harvard Business Review May 2014, 31 July 2014, https://hbr.org/2014/05/leading-with-humor.
- Bennett, Mary Payne, and Cecile A. Lengacher. “Humor and Laughter May Influence Health. I. History and Background.” Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine 3.1 (2006): 61–63. PMC. Web. 26 Jan. 2018.
- Brownstein, Joseph, and Abc News Medical Unit. “Why Pain Makes Us Laugh.” ABC News, ABC News Network, 25 Nov. 2008, abcnews.go.com/Health/PainManagement/story?id=6325491.