The Psychology of Comedy: Rule of Threes

What’s so funny?  Well, comprehensive psychological research has shown that the answer to that question is YOUR FACE!

Right, so what I just did there exemplifies one of the core principles behind comedy.  It’s pretty well established that the basic mechanism behind a joke is the creation of an assumption followed by a violation of that assumption (see Attardo, 1997; Koestler, 1964; Raskin, 1985; Wyer & Collins, 1992).  When you break down the opening line of this blog post you will see that it begins by introducing a particular tone and style in its language.  The terms “psychological” and “research” act to generate a context of seriousness and professionalism.  Then just as your brain is establishing an understanding of that context, it is interrupted by YOUR FACE.  This interruption is what makes you lol.

What intrigues me the most about this topic is how deconstructing a joke can teach us about how our mind works.  Comedians are constantly trying new material to see what’s most effective and how to improve it.  Eventually they can develop intuitive understandings of the mechanisms behind what makes people laugh.  My goal in this post is to explore one of these mechanisms in cognitive terms: the rule of three.

The rule of three creates an assumption by listing two similar items, then a third one that differs in a fundamental way:

I like red wine, classical music and committing brutal homicides.

They then become more elaborate by having introductions to the items:

I didn’t have time to pack much for the weekend, just: socks, undies…. my ninja sword.

To add to these, you can re-iterate the assumption at the end of the joke by using what comedians call a ‘tag’:

Man I love the horse races: the big winnings, the fashion, the woman collapsing in a pool of their own vomit.  It’s all fun.

These extra elements of introductions and tags act to reinforce the assumptions created by the first two words in the list.  To take the second joke as an example, we hear the word ‘undies’ and subconsciously associate it with categories such as ‘clothing’, ‘basic’ and ‘essential’. When we hear that ‘socks’ is the next item, those categories are reinforced.  In comes the ‘ninja sword’ to contradict those categories and is what causes some nice little chuckles.

So what does this joke style tell us about the brain? I suggest, and of course this blog is for explorative not empirical discussion, that the listing of the first two items taps into the pattern seeking elements of our brain.  Our mind is constantly forming links and associations between the different information we receive.  Our brain creates what psychologists call a schema i.e. a cognitive pattern.  This means that based on the former information received, a natural expectation of what’s to come is generated.  This is then contradicted when the third item is listed because it doesn’t fit into any of those categories.  The involuntary response to this, of course, is to laugh. Laughter in this instance, as cognitive scientist Martin Minsky argues, is the brain’s way to deal with the break in pattern and consequently identify nonsense.

I find it a pretty compelling idea that laughter helps us recognise absurdities, if we accept that claim.  Such an idea would confirm the strength of, let’s say, political comedy’s ability to influence ideas and opinions about an issue.  If a comedian can make you laugh about a topic or argument, it is possible you are more likely to see its flaws.

A general instance of this is when American comedians would joke about Barack Obama turning into a hard core gangster rapper as soon as he got into office.  This demonstrated to the audiences how ridiculous the notion was that Obama had any characteristics of such a stereotype.

This may be an important lesson in communication because rather just stating that something is nonsense, using the power of laughter may be so much more compelling.  So my recommendation is that if you have information you are trying to convey about absurdities, use the rule of threes; it’s fun, effective and pappadam.

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One thought on “The Psychology of Comedy: Rule of Threes

  1. Pingback: Comedy’s Rule of Three « Presentation Toolkit

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