Laughter is the best... focus tool?

Why watching funny videos at work may be useful.

3-minute read

Welcome to another edition of Study of the Month!  I loved McKendree’s tee-up on playful culture, so let’s keep the train going!

Do you ever just lay awake at night thinking to yourself, “Wow, how does Vaneeta get all that energy? And how is she SO funny? What is it about Canadians?”

Well, I’m glad you asked. Luckily, researchers, Cheng and Wang, at the University of New South Wales in Australia decided to look into it back in 2015 when you could still go to restaurants and bars. They investigated the relationship between humor and persistence: Would exposure to humorous stimuli make individuals invest more time and show more persistence in a difficult task?

The setup

Participants were 74 undergraduate students (37 male, 37 female) enrolled in a management (human resources) class. As they walked into the lab, they were told they were going to perform several unrelated tasks. These tasks included crossing-out the letter “e” on two pages of writing (ughhhhh) and then watching 1 of 3 videos (depending on the condition they were assigned to: humor, neutral, or contentment condition, with the latter meant to compare the impact of humor with that of another positive emotion). Following the video, they all engaged in a final task to measure their persistence. 

  • Condition 1 (Humor): These folks got to watch video clips of Mr. Bean, a BBC comedy (watch the 5 minute clip here).
  • Condition 2 (Neutral): These folks watched an educational video about the management profession (imagine something like this).
  • Condition 3 (Contentment): These folks got to watch a video containing a beautiful beach scene with dolphins swimming in the ocean (again, imagine something like this).

The great unsolvable task

After they watched their 8 minute long videos, participants were then faced with an (unsolvable) human resources task because HR issues were relevant to the careers they were pursuing. What was the HR task? Well, they were required to make performance predictions of potential employees in a hypothetical company based on the employees’ personality profiles!

Upon making each prediction, participants were given immediate feedback via computer software on whether their prediction was too high, too low, or correct. After receiving the feedback, they had a choice: do they predict the next employee’s performance or do they just quit the task?

To encourage persistence, participants were instructed that successful completion of the task required 10 consecutive correct predictions (which was made to be impossible by the computer software).

What they found

Nevertheless, she persisted. Individuals who watched the humorous Mr. Bean video clip made twice as many predictions in the HR task and spent significantly more time working on the task than the participants in the other two conditions.

The takeaway

We traditionally think of focus and productivity as looking like heads-down work with no distractions. Turns out, when you're feeling low on energy, what also might work well when you’re about to deep dive into a task is spending a few minutes watching a short, humorous video to keep you energized. Specifically, let’s think about the ways we can create this alone (solo task) or even together, such as in meetings and workshops. This author shared a  5-minute clip from The Office during a virtual workshop break as some participants admitted they were just going to do emails anyway.