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[Research Talk] Telling the world’s worst jokes: A cognitive scientist looks at humour

By Dr. Chris Westbury, February 12 , 12:30 pm - 2 pm

The Reading Lab led by ARiEAL Researcher, Dr. Victor Kuperman, will be hosting a talk by Dr. Chris Westbury, next Wednesday. Dr. Westbury is a clinically-trained research psychologist whose work focuses on understanding the cognitive structure and neurological underpinnings of language. He has a particular interest in semantics, or what it means for words to have meaning. Dr. Westbury mainly uses experimental methods and statistical/computational modeling, and, occasionally, functional imaging and patient studies.

Title: Telling the world’s worst jokes: A cognitive scientist looks at humour
Presenter: Dr. Chris Westbury

Date: Wednesday, February 12, 2020
Time: 12:30 pm to 2 pm
Location: LRW 2001, McMaster University

Although scholars have proposed and debated theories of humour for over 2000 years, the study of humour has never been put on a scientific basis. This is largely because theories of humour tend to be post hoc, hand-wavy descriptions that are too general to make testable predictions. Dr. Westbury will discuss three sets of studies that have solved this problem by focusing on the world’s worst jokes (why are some non-words, like ‘snunkoople’, funny?), the world’s second-worst jokes (why are some words, like ‘boobie’, funny?) and the world’s third-worst jokes (why are some adjective-noun pairs, like ‘slaphappy turd’, funny?). By stripping humour down to so little, we have successfully built statistical models that can predict human humour judgments in advance. Even the very simple forms of humour he will discuss are surprisingly complex. Our model of the humour of single words is simultaneously consistent with several major theories of humour, and synthesizes and weights information from a large number of independent measures (yes, single words are complex!). Real jokes are orders of magnitudes more complex, and may lie forever outside of science’s grasp. Dr. Westbury will also share his less-than-scientific speculations on why we (and other primates) laugh at all. Warning: This talk will include profanity and reference to rude concepts.