We are really excited to launch Baby Loves Science. Our goal is to create a community where parents help each other learn about early child development. We plan to write a monthly blog about different areas of research in child development. This month is about humour.
Until very recently, there was hardly any academic research on how humour develops from birth to 3 years. However, from talking to parents, it is something that is very prevalent early on in children’s lives. One of my main goals as a researcher in developmental psychology has been to understand how children come to understand humour in the first place.
One focus of my research has been to find out what toddlers understand about humour. One way to do this is through experiments - which, from the toddlers’ point of view, looks like a fun game. In my research with Prof Merideth Gattis at Cardiff University in Wales, UK, we wanted to find out if toddlers could tell the difference between a joke and a mistake. To do this, we set up a copying game. The experimenter (me) did a series of wrong actions, for instance, putting a hat on, but pulling it over my eyes. For half the kids, I laughed, showing I was joking. For the other half of the kids, I said, “Whoops!” to show I made a mistake. We found that from 25 months, but not younger, children copied the wrong actions if they were meant as a joke, but corrected the same wrong actions if they were meant as a mistake. That means that children over 2 appear to understand when someone is trying to be funny. However children under 2 do not. They copied and corrected the actions at random, so they may have made their decisions based on whether they found it funny or not, not on whether it was meant to be funny.
In another study with Prof Nameera Akhtar at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in the United States, we wanted to see whether 2-year-olds would not only copy jokes and correct mistakes, but also make up their own jokes. This time around, we used verbal jokes, and mislabeled familiar objects (e.g., spoon) with silly words (e.g., oogle boo). For half the children, we said we were joking and laughed. For the other half we acted sincerely (which may have led the children to question our sanity and/or competence!) When we let the kids know we were joking, they were much more likely to make up their own jokes. For instance, one kid called a cup a “goojooboojoo”, a word we never said (and wish we had!) However in the sincere group, kids tended to call a cup a cup. So not only could the kids tell when we were joking, but they could join in as well, making up jokes that no one had ever told before.
You might be wondering if your child can tell when people are joking, and make up their own jokes, and the answer is maybe. First, it depends on your child’s age - as kids get older, they are more likely to understand when people are joking. But age isn’t the only thing. All kids are different - and some will appreciate or produce humour earlier or later than others. Also, different kids will find different things funny. In fact, not all kids copied or made up their own jokes in our study, and while one reason might be that they didn’t get it, another reason might be that they were not amused. Perhaps our humour was too low-level for them, or just not their preferred type. Third, we only looked at Welsh, American, and Scottish children, and children might react differently to humour in different cultures and languages.
So have we solved humour development yet? No - there’s still a long way to go! We hope you’ll help us answer more questions, such as when children start to appreciate and produce different types of jokes, and how much children’s own maturation (e.g., language development) plays a role. That's why we are running the Early Humour Survey this month, for anyone with a child between 0 and 47 months. We want to hear from you whether or not your child laughs or understands jokes yet, whatever country you are from, and whatever your child's type of development (e.g., typical, Down's syndrome, deaf, etc.) When lots of parents fill out lots of surveys, we can start to piece together when and why children develop humour.
Dr Elena Hoicka is a Lecturer (equivalent to Assistant Professor) in developmental psychology at the University of Sheffield, in England. Her research focuses on the early development of humour, pretending, deception, and learning.