Scientifically proven: The world’s funniest joke. The world’s perfect pick up line. And how you can tell if someone is lying.

August 9, 2011

“Quirkology” shows us the power of communications to impact human behavior
stand up comedian

Seven perfect days of vacation allowed me to once again indulge a passion for communications and its impact on human behavior. Words have always been my thing. And understanding the impact of words drives much of my waking hours (and sometimes even my sleeping hours when my brain continues to write the next day’s copy late into the night).

So this vacation, I took the opportunity to read a book that’s long been on my list. “Quirkology” is the work of pop psychologist Richard Wiseman. Dated and quaint in parts (written in 2007, the book seems to have ignored the Internet in favor of such dated institutions like post offices and letter writing), it’s still a fascinating investigation into the science of everyday life, and why we act as we do. Good reading for public relations professionals, like myself, enthralled with the power of influence and how to invoke it through the things we say and do.

At first, the book would seem to have little to do with communications. For instance, a chapter on why so many famous people are born on historically important dates boils down to the simple fact that in the past (pre-Internet), many people had the ways and means to lie about their birth dates. (In a world without Facebook, who knew what year you graduated from high school unless you said so?)

But hidden within Wiseman’s writing is a portal into the power of words and how to use them to an advantage. Start with the opening. Wiseman contends that it’s easy to tell if someone is a good liar. Simply have them trace a capital Q on their forehead using the index finger of their dominate hand. Good liars uniquely know how others perceive them and so will trace a mirror image of the Q on their forehead so others can read it easily.

Even more interesting is Wiseman’s research into determining if someone is outright lying to you. He contends that body language is misleading and difficult to read. Shifty eyes and sweating could be more a sign of nervousness than lying.

Wiseman concludes that the best way to smoke out a liar is not to try to read visual cues, but rather read the transcript of what someone is saying. Communication is a better indicator because liars typically say less, use fewer I’s (in effect divorcing themselves personally from the lie), and never provide the richness of detail as someone who is being truthful. Hm. Think I might try that one on some employees.

Just as compelling is Wiseman’s research into the perfect pick up line. Being happily married to my high school sweetheart and as a quick CYA, I have no use of pick up lines. But as a professional writer and publicist, I do have an intrinsic interest in how to open a dialogue with the media, a prospective client, and employees.

In a study of speed dating, Wiseman points out that the best opening lines are those without a trace of contention. Everyone knows to stay away from politics and religion. Wiseman goes further. Opening lines that talk about music or movies similarly open themselves to disagreement.

The best opening lines engage and open a conversation to opinion. His conclusion of the best line: If you were a pizza topping, what pizza topping would you be? I know it didn’t work for Barbara Walters, but you can bet I will use it the next time banter at a cocktail party starts to flounder.

Which brings me to the world’s funniest joke that has nothing to do with aristocrats. Wiseman was the mastermind of the world’s largest experiment when he launched LaughLab and invited people from around the world to submit jokes and then allowed anyone to rate them online.

I was glad to see that one of my standbys, a twist on the old Princeton joke that ends with, “Can you tell me where the library is at, asshole?” ranked high. As did the woof, woof joke. You know the one where the dog stops at a telegraph office and dictates a message to the operator. He barks out nine woofs. The operators tells the dog he can send one more woof for the same price. The dog looks at him and says, “But that would make absolutely no sense.”

But alas, those jokes are all lost to the single most funniest joke in the world, scientifically validated in what was at its time the largest experiment ever undertaken by a scientist. And that includes the one about two cows standing in a field. When one says moo, the other replies, “Hey, I was going to say that.”

No. That’s not the funniest joke. The absolutely funniest joke in the world, the one rated highest online by hundreds of thousands of people from countries around the world, the one that proved the power of communications and its ability to elicit response is … guess you will have to buy the book at Amazon.

See. Such is the power of communications to incite behavior and get people to act.

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Frank Freudberg
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5 years 8 months ago
I’ve always loved that library joke, but never heard the “moo” joke before now. It’s great. Welcome back from vacation Greg, and thanks for this thought-provoking post. At the heart of communication are words, and from reading reports, articles and web content, I get the definite impression that most writers seem to be in a hurry, and the value of using the right words is overlooked, or worse, ignored. William Zinsser said, “Easy writing makes hard reading.”; I think he was thinking about the imperative to take the time to make certain that what you are writing makes sense, sounds… Read more »
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