Humor and Persuasion

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Humor and Persuasion
Jake Swenson


The actor John Cleese once said, "If I can get you to laugh with me, you like me better, which makes you more open to my ideas. And if I can persuade you to laugh at the particular point I make, by laughing at it you acknowledge its truth.” (Mortensen, 2004) Humor disarms an audience, making them more likely to open up to you. In a book by Kurt Mortensen, called “Maximum influence: the 12 universal laws of power persuasion”, he stated: ”…once your prospects feel comfortable with you, they will be more in tune to your message and more likely to remain attentive. Perhaps most powerful of all, in our fast-paced culture where most things are fleeting, they remember you and continue to hold you in a positive light long after the initial exchange. When you leverage the element of humor, any message coming from you receives more weight than one that comes from someone who has not created the audience rapport you have achieved.” (W., 2004)

The use of humor in persuasion is a technique that has been the source of many studies. A parallel between the humor and an audience’s influenced nature, however, has still yet to be quantifiably substantiated as a legitimate source of persuasive prowess. As stated in a publication written for the Journal of General Psychology by Jim Little, called “The effectiveness of humor in persuasion: The case of business ethics training,” he recognizes that, “Humor is presumed to aid in persuasion in both advertising (Heinecke, 1997) and education (Wallinger, 1997), but empirical research has rarely been able to demonstrate these effects (Bryant, Comisky, Crane, & Zillmann, 1980; Gruner & Freshley, 1979). It is not yet clear whether the investment of time and effort in the use of humor in persuasion is justified” (Lyttle, 2001). Modern day examples of persuasion are in advertisements. The main point of an advertisement is to supply varying details to the listener to convince them that their product, event etc. is worth their time, money, etc. Many advertisements use humor, which seems like a great asset to assist in persuasion. However, as stated by Dorothy Markiewicz written in an article named, “Effects of Humor on Persuasion”:

“Those concerned with politics, advertising, or rhetoric often suggest that humor enhances the effectiveness of a persuasive message. Yet research considering the effects of humor on message effectiveness suggests that its contribution is questionable” (Markiewicz, 1974.)

However debated the effectiveness of the use of humor in persuasion may be the general psychology of its far reaching and unifying effects is much more easily recognized. In general, the more people involved in a situation, the more we laugh. For example, when a movie theater is packed, the laughter tends to be greater and last longer than when there are only four people in the audience. This is one of the reasons why TV producers use canned laughter in their programming. Often the scenario being acted out really isn’t even that funny, but studies show that the use of laugh tracks actually gets us to laugh more (Mortensen, 2010). Whether the material even registered as being funny or not, we are more inclined to laugh along if we hear others laughing. Thus, the affect had on the audience is a allowing them to feel persuaded to agree that what was being said was actually funny. This scenario of unifying an audience with laughter has a disarming effect. Humor can make a person feel warm and comfortable therefore kicking into gear the heuristic theory. This theory states that a person is bound to be influenced by past experiences and intrinsic desires rather that systematic processing. For example, if a consumer preferred to buy name brand products (heuristic cue) and then read an article in a computer magazine (systematic processing) arguing that name-brand computers were superior to generic “clones,” the two forms of processing would reinforce...
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