Want the recipe for pranks that will have guaranteed laughs on April fool’s day? A study published in Psychological Science found jokes that involve moral or norm violations are funnier but only when the moral violation seems benign, so the audience has psychological distance from it.
Check out this video by the Pocket Scientist, George Zaidan, summarizing the study:
In one experiment, volunteers were asked read pairs of situations, one of which had a moral violation (e.g. a rabbi promoting pork) while the other did not. The situation with the moral violation was more likely to make the reader laugh. Another experiment tested whether benign appraisals of a moral violation made it funnier, and they found that it did. People who have more psychological distance from a moral violation are more likely to be amused. When it seems real, it no longer seems funny, but when it seems unbelievable, the moral violation is benign and the joke is funnier.
So when you’re cooking up some humor and you’ve added the spice of moral or norm violation, don’t forget the secret ingredient: make it benign.
McGraw, A., & Warren, C. (2010). Benign Violations: Making Immoral Behavior Funny Psychological Science, 21 (8).