You are here:

Request a Demo Contact Us

How Laughter Leads to Learning

Bob Little 

December 1, 2017

It’s widely agreed that laughter is one of the vital ingredients for a healthy, happy life. As Victor Hugo once said: “Laughter is the sun that drives winter from the human face.”

But, while we all enjoy a good laugh, we must remember that not everyone finds the same things funny, and that humor can be easily misinterpreted. Indeed, in these days of globalization and people from many different cultures working together, it’s essential that L&D professionals are wary of using humor to deliver corporate learning.

Nonetheless, several academic studies have shown that laughter can help to enhance our attention, improve our memory, make us more motivated, and boost our perception and learning. Just look at the success of educational television shows like Sesame Street, for example, or Bill Nye the Science Guy.

The Comedy of “Cock-Up”

Sir Antony Jay, the co-founder of e-learning company Video Arts (alongside former “Python” John Cleese), is reported to have said that the key to delivering entertaining training materials was the “comedy of cock-up.” And he should know. Video Arts continues to be one of the most successful video learning businesses around, and many of its resources feature esteemed British comedians, such as Dawn French, Ricky Gervais and Hugh Laurie.

After all, who could forget the brutally honest “Meetings, Bl**dy Meetings” video, or the hilarious “How Am I Doing?” training guides?

According to Jay, the framework used by Video Arts was based on British Army training methods, which he experienced first hand during his time at the Royal Corps of Signals in the 1950s. “The instructors would show you – briefly – how to do something,” explained Jay. “Then, they’d show you the humorous, but disastrous results of doing it the wrong way.

“Finally, they’d show you, in some detail, how to do it correctly, and stress the benefits of always doing it correctly, such as it ensured you stayed alive. Of course, it was the hilarious consequences of getting things wrong that made the learning memorable. So we thought we’d use this approach at VA.”

Why Do We Laugh?

But, before you try to emulate those who’ve used humor successfully to deliver L&D, it’s important to understand the nature of comedy. What makes us laugh? And why?

These are both tricky questions to answer. After all, humor is largely subjective. And what makes one person laugh can fall completely flat with someone else – and may even cause offense.

So, before you start, let’s take a look at three theories that help to explain why we find something funny.

1. Relief Theory

The Relief Theory was first proposed by Sigmund Freud. He said that laughter acts as a “release valve,” which allows us to “blow off steam.” In this way, it helps to release tension or nervous energy caused by our fears. Freud also suggested that humor helps us to overcome our inhibitions and reveal our suppressed desires.

2. Superiority Theory

This theory can be traced back to the work of Plato and Aristotle. It states that we laugh when we have the chance to experience superiority over others. This could be physical, intellectual, social and/or emotional superiority.

In this way, the theory is closely linked to “schadenfreude” – the pleasure that we derive from others’ misfortune. Just think about the popularity of “epic fail” videos on YouTube, for instance. Or, the slapstick comedy of Laurel and Hardy, and The Three Stooges.

3. Incongruity Theory

German philosophers Kant, Schopenhauer and Hegel suggested that humor is created when there is a difference or “incongruity” between what we expect to happen and what actually happens. Essentially, we laugh at things that surprise us because they are odd or out of place.

This is why, for instance, we find it funny when clowns wear outrageously large shoes and ridiculous costumes. And why we enjoy puns and one-liner jokes. Just take this classic from the late comedian Tommy Cooper: “I sleep like a baby… I wake up screaming every morning around 3am.” Or, Ken Cheng’s winning one-liner from this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival: “I’m not a fan of the new pound coin, but then again, I hate all change.”

Laughter Can Improve Retention and Recall

So, how exactly does laughter improve our learning?

According to Nick Hindley, Head of L&D at Marshall Aerospace and Defence Group, it’s because laughter has a positive impact on memory. As he explains, “Much research on memory suggests that humor can be more effective in helping retention and recall, compared with using non-humorous materials. If this notion is widened to lightheartedness, then the use of music also seems to be helpful in aiding retention and recall.”

“Humorous visuals – rather than, say, blocks of type – can be memorable. However, before using them, it’s important to get them checked for cultural implications.

“It can be helpful to use others’ humor to introduce a topic or highlight a point,” says Hindley. “But these must be brief – one or two minutes maximum.” He points to a number of examples here, such as:

But, while humor can be effective, Hindley warns that educators must use it with caution. “The fear of unintentionally offending a learner is never far away from an L&D professional’s mind – and humor can be a source of offense. So, if you’re in any doubt, don’t use humor to make your point.

“The only humor I ever use is against myself,” he says. “Occasionally, ‘talking backwards’ while reversing, if I’ve said something that came out wrong, gets a laugh!”

Hindley adds, “References to things that I find funny haven’t been so productive. Often, that’s because the group aren’t aware of the reference I’m making, because they neither know what I know nor have my personal cultural and social background.”

Let the Laughter Flow Naturally

One of the essential things to remember when you use humor to deliver learning is that it can’t be forced. It must flow naturally, and the timing must be just right.

As Lorna Lawrence, Director of Knowledge Through Analysis, explains, “I believe that using humor effectively, at the right time to the right audience, is a key skill. However, you need to be able to ‘read’ your audience to ensure you aren’t offending anyone at any time,” she adds. “It’s not an easy thing to do.

“I’m not sure that humor can be written into a standard script. Humor must come naturally. That way, you can tailor it to the specific audience.

“Most of the time, you’re not making a conscious decision to use humor,” says Lawrence. “It just happens – and a lot of the time it’s self-deprecating!”

Using humor also has a number of other benefits, besides retention and recall. As Lawrence discloses, “Being open to using humor makes you more approachable – which, for an HR professional, is vital. It can help build trust and good working relationships. If handled correctly, it can put people at ease – which can be especially useful if you’re training new starters or putting new processes in place.”

Although she goes on to warn of the potential horrors of using humor that can ensue when you don’t take your audience into consideration. As she explains, “If used incorrectly, humor can be a disaster – so my advice is keep it natural, know your audience, and make it relevant.”


Do you agree that laughter can help us to learn? How have you used humor to deliver training? Were there tears of laughter, or just… tears?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. All fields required.

View our Privacy Policy.