December 11, 2015

The scientific theory behind what makes Dr. Seuss funny


Dr Seuss: "helping us compute the probabilities in the world"

Dr. Seuss: “helping us compute the probabilities in the world”

A psychology professor at the University of Alberta claims to have found the scientific answer to that age-old question: why is Dr. Seuss so funny?

Chris Westbury was conducting research for another project when he realized that his test subjects couldn’t stop laughing every time the word “snunkoople” appeared. So, as The Washington Post reports, Westbury decided to conduct another experiment in order to find out why words like “snunkoople” and Dr. Seuss’s “flunnel” and “wumbus” and “zizzer-zazzer-zuzz” are inherently funny.

Westbury now believes he has developed the first ever “quantifiable theory of humor,” and it’s all thanks to Schopenhauer and maths.

As Sarah Kaplan writes for The Washington Post, Schopenhauer pointed out that things are funny when they confound our expectations:

This idea, termed “incongruity theory,” explains why people laugh at puns and the sight of a dozen clowns clambering out of a teeny, tiny car — both defy what we expect to hear or see.

And this applies to words too. Dr. Seuss’ words are definitely incongruous: they’re not in the dictionary, they make unexpected sounds, and they rely on non-standard combinations of vowels and consonants. Take “floob-boober-bab-boober-bubs,” for example.

But maths also plays a part, in particular a formula known as Shannon entropy. As Kaplan explains:

The formula, developed by information theorist Claude Shannon, will make your head spin more than a Dr. Seuss run-on-sentence, the gist is that it quantified how much entropy, or disorder, is contained within a message. Words with unusual or improbable letter combinations—“snunkoople,” “yuzz-a-ma-tuzz,” “oobleck,” “truffula,” “sneetch” (the last four are all Seuss-isms)—are more disordered, and therefore, Westbury hypothesized, funnier.

Westbury tested his theory by asking test subjects to rate a list of made up words on a humour scale of 1 to 100. In almost every case, the words with a higher entropy level were deemed funnier than those that were less disordered.

As Westbury explains in the below video, his theory suggests that laughter isn’t as spontaneous as it appears, but that “feeling is actually a kind of probability calculation”. What’s more, humour is actually a very useful thing, because, according to Westbury, “emotion is helping us compute the probabilities in the world.”

Proof, if any was still needed, that there’s method in the madness of Dr. Seuss.




Zeljka Marosevic is the managing director of Melville House UK.