The Science and Design of Humor in Health
Laughter is the best medicine… but go to an emergency room if you have a severed artery.*
Joking aside, humor can be a complementary tool for making life-altering behavior change. Well-crafted, in-character, on-topic humor can help us learn and retain important information. This can help us make better decisions to improve our health, wealth and well-being. Humor also lets us help others: By increasing attention, engagement and retention, comedy improves communications and better understanding by our audience can drive their own behavior change.
In our typical fashion here at engagedIN, we got curious and researched the science and design of humor in health communications. Here are our top FOUR (4) insights you can use when you are designing for behavior change:
1) Humor increases communication effectiveness
Humor increases positive feelings, builds trust, relationships and community. Studies show that it helps us better pay attention to, engage with and retain important and challenging information.
Laughter Feels Good
Neuroscience confirms what we know from the eyes of a laughing toddler: Exposure to humor activates brain regions associated with pleasure, including the dopamine reward system . Humor makes experiences more positive  and communications tend to be more persuasive when they evoke positive emotions . Keep reading, you beautiful, beautiful creature. (See?)
Trust Me, I’m A Comedian
Studies suggest that an audience is more likely to believe – and less likely to argue against – humorous claims . Humorous content can be particularly useful to get acceptance of otherwise-threatening information . Amusement also increases our willingness to disclose intimate information like medical conditions and how we snort when we laugh . These things help us be open to change concepts that might be outside our comfort zones. And snort. They help us snort.
It Takes A Village To Raise A Joke
The contagious nature of humor builds community by lowering defenses, bringing individuals together  and encouraging them to respond to each other positively . Laughter creates group bonds  and a virtual support system, especially with potentially threatening situations . It can also relieve the tension of confrontation and awkwardness . These all help us to share challenging information and ideas, even when there’s internal or external conflict. We all know a well-timed, non-abrasive joke can make that awkward Thanksgiving dinner conversation a lot more comfortable for everyone (well, everyone except the turkey).
2) Humor grabs attention & makes things engaging
What do we know from wasting time online (never at work, though, right)? Funny content gets shared the most. Cat videos? Meow! That’s why advertisers often use (or attempt to use) comedy. By lowering apprehension with humor, brands encourage users to engage with, and emotionally invest in, their ideas, content, products or services – and then share them on Slack .
3) The brain remembers the funny
Humorous stimuli are easier to remember than non-humorous stimuli . “Stimuli” is a funny word – so you’ll probably remember this tidbit. FWIW: This could be because a) “brevity is the soul of wit,” b) humor consumption is associated with arousal , and c) we are more likely to rely on brief decision-making shorthands when positively aroused . Students have been shown to absorb info more quickly and retain more of it for longer when it is presented with well-done, topic-related humor .
4) But be funny or else!!!
As with any blunt tool, using – or trying to use – humor for behavior change involves risk. Comedy could potentially trivialize important topics  and poorly crafted, divisive, offensive, off-topic or out-of-character humor does NOT improve learning, retention or communication. Bad comedy can, in fact, have negative repercussions [Citation: The Journal of No Duh].
Why did the chicken cross the road? To prime your brain for behavior change on the other side.
*Special thanks to Prof. Peter McGraw of University of Colorado’s Humor Research Lab for his assistance.
If you want the full bibliography, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Mobbs et al.; Neely et al. 2003  Strick et al. 2009, Moran; Szabo  Holbrook and Batra; Pham, Geuens, and Pelsmacker  Griskevicius et al.; Mukherjee and Dubé; Strick et al. 2012  Conway and Dubé; Nabi, Moyer-Gusé and Byrne; Yoon 2002  Berscheid and Reis; Gray, Parkinson, and Dunbar 1998  Henderson 2015  Weimer  Dezecache and Dunbar 2012  Shiota et al. 2004  Martin 2007  Stern; Lautenslager 2017  Carlson; Eisend 2009; Schmidt 1994; Strick et al. 2010  Martin; Rothbart  Sanbonmatsu and Kardes 1988  e.g., Bryant & Zillman; Opplinger; Schmidt 2002.  Moyer-Gusé et al.; Nabi et al.; McGraw, Schiro, and Fernbach 2011