Scientists capture humour’s earliest emergence
Press release issued: 19 November 2021
Young children's ability to laugh and make jokes has been mapped by age for the first time using data from a new study involving nearly 700 children from birth to four years of age, from around the world. The findings, led by University of Bristol researchers and published in Behavior Research Methods, identifies the earliest age humour emerges and how it typically builds in the first years of life.
Researchers from Bristol’s School of Education sought to determine what types of humour are present in early development and the ages at which different types of humour emerge. The team created the 20-question Early Humour Survey (EHS) and asked the parents of 671 children aged 0 to 47 months from the UK, US, Australia, and Canada, to complete the five-minute survey about their child’s humour development.
The team found the earliest reported age that some children appreciated humour was one month, with an estimated 50% of children appreciating humour by two months, and 50% producing humour by 11 months. The team also show that once children produced humour, they produced it often, with half of children having joked in the last three hours.
Of the children surveyed, the team identified 21 different types of humour. Children under one year of age appreciated physical, visual and auditory forms of humour. This included hide and reveal games (e.g., peekaboo), tickling, funny faces, bodily humour (e.g., putting your head through your legs), funny voices and noises, chasing, and misusing objects (e.g., putting a cup on your head).
One-year-olds appreciated several types of humour that involved getting a reaction from others. This included teasing, showing hidden body parts (e.g., taking off clothes), scaring others, and taboo topics (e.g., toilet humour). They also found it funny to act like something else (e.g., an animal).
Two-year-olds’ humour reflected language development, including mislabelling, playing with concepts (e.g., dogs say moo), and nonsense words. Children in this age group were also found to demonstrate a mean streak as they appreciated making fun of others and aggressive humour (e.g., pushing someone).
Finally, 3-year-olds were found to play with social rules (e.g., saying naughty words to be funny), and showed the beginnings of understanding tricks and puns.
Dr Elena Hoicka, Associate Professor in Bristol’s School of Education and the study’s lead author, said: “Our results highlight that humour is a complex, developing process in the first four years of life. Given its universality and importance in so many aspects of children’s and adults’ lives, it is important that we develop tools to determine how humour first develops so that we can further understand not only the emergence of humour itself, but how humour may help young children function cognitively, socially, and in terms of mental health.
“The Early Humour Survey addresses an important gap of when different types of humour develop. It has the potential, with more research, to be used as a diagnostic tool in early development in terms of developmental differences, and to help inform early years educators and the UK’s national curriculum for 0-5 years.”
‘The Early Humor Survey (EHS): a reliable parent-report measure of humor development for 1- to 47-month-olds’ by Elena Hoicka et al in Behavior Research Methods [open access]
This project was funded by a University of Sheffield Women Academic Returners Program grant, and a University of Bristol Returning Carers Scheme Grant, both awarded to Dr Elena Hoicka; as well as a PhD studentship from the Ministry of Education in Turkey, awarded to Burcu Soy-Telli.