How Humor Can Fuel Innovation: Barry Kudrowitz (Transcript)

Full text of Barry Kudrowitz’s talk: How Humor Can Fuel Innovation at TEDxUMN conference. In this talk, Barry makes the case for humor as a fuel for creativity and explains why you might want to hold on to your silly ideas.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here:


Barry Kudrowitz – Associate Professor and Director of Product Design at the University of Minnesota

Hi, everyone. Wow!

So, I don’t feel that humor gets the academic attention it deserves. There’s a humor for the sake of humor. For example, when I was a graduate student at MIT, I worked on this ketchup pooping robot that somehow went viral.

And then, there’s humor that can lead to some serious innovation. In my research, I’ve studied connections between humor and creativity. And there’s one relatively well accepted theory of creativity called the ‘associative theory.’ And this one states that creativity is about making non-obvious connections between seemingly unrelated things.

So, here’s an example. This is Cyrus McCormick, and the Cyrus invented the mechanical reaper. And it said that the way he came up with this idea was he saw shears being used for hair and he said, “Hair is a lot like wheat, why don’t we make some giant shears to cut the wheat?” And right now, this seems very obvious to us; ‘Yes, that’s a good way of cutting wheat.’

But at the time, that’s not what they’re doing, right? They’re hacking away at the wheat. More recently, somebody said, “Don’t shears look a lot like bunny ears?” And this person made bunny scissors.

These are very different examples, right? One is more about form; one is about function; one is very, what is it called? One is very serious. But they’re both examples of these associative theory of creativity; they’re both making non-obvious connections between seemingly unrelated things.

And recently, they found a place in your brain that’s partially responsible for making these non-obvious connections. It’s called the posterior superior temporal sulcus. And just next to this region is the ‘Aha’ zone; and this is the part of your brain that lights up when you come to some realization. And it’s also the part of your brain that lights up when you get the punch line to a joke. Really cool, right?

So there’s a few things in common, between humor and creativity. But not all humor is creative; there’s several varieties of humor. Here’s three. the first one I’m going to talk about is the ‘Release Theory of Humor.’ And the release theory of humor goes back to prehistoric times, so here’s a caveman and he’s out hunting with his tribe, with a spear, and maybe he sees something in the distance. So, he like goes over to this thing and then, maybe this tree starts shaking.

And then, he starts shaking because it could be a large animal that’s going to come out and eat him. And then it turns out, ‘Oh, it was nothing.’ And he laughs, because it’s an emotional release; it’s catharsis, right?

But it’s also communication, so the rest of the tribe that ‘Everything’s okay. I’m not in danger anymore.’ And we started using this recently in popular culture, like things like The Office or Ali G, right? They make you laugh by making you feel really uncomfortable for a character or situation.

So, just out of curiosity, how many people in the audience like that type of humor? Round of applause. Anyone?

So, the next theory of humor is the evil one. This is the superiority theory that says, we laugh at other people’s misfortunes. Right? We laugh when someone slips on a banana peel or gets hit in the head with a 2×4 because ha-ha-ha, that sucks for you. It didn’t happen to me, and therefore I am better than you are. Who likes this type of humor?

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So, this is generally preferred by males; there’s studies of them. I didn’t really go to do studies on that, didn’t I?

And then lastly, there’s the incongruity theory. And the incongruity theory is the one that’s most closely related to creativity. The incongruity theory says, something is funny if two things come together that aren’t expected to come together but somehow make sense.

So, to elaborate on this, I’m going to analyze a joke for you, using Jerry Saltz two-stage model of joke appreciation. So, that’s not funny.

So, here comes a joke; and the way a joke starts out, there’s a set up or read it. So, here’s the setup for a joke, ‘where does the General keep his armies?’ and what’s happening in your brain, if you don’t know this already, is you’re trying to predict the outcome and you’re making a mind map; you’re saying, “what is related to armies, forts, tents, army base?”

And then I’m going to give you a punch liner ending. And if that ending is as predicted; if it’s in your mind map that you made, for example, where does the general keep his armies? In his army base. No laughter, right? Because that’s exactly what you’re thinking.

So, this is Meta humor what’s happening right out here. You’re expecting an incongruity and you got no incongruity, and that’s the incongruity.

So, okay, let’s go back to this one. So now if I didn’t give you an incongruity or something that was very distantly related so, where does the general keep his armies? In his sleevies. You’re saying, okay, you’ve got it already. You’re faster than I am.

What are sleevies? And as soon as you make the connection between armies and sleevies; in this case, the connection is that armies has two meanings; it can be this like people getting this joke in a different sense… there’s troops and then there’s like, you know, little arms in my sleeves. You made the connection, it’s funny, ha-ha-ha, you’re in the laughter zone over here.

And for those of you who still don’t know what’s going on, you’re in the puzzlement confusion box.

So, the same thing happens with innovative products, when you see something innovative for the first time. For example, this is a toilet brush designed by Philippe Starck, called the Excalibur. And when you look at this toilet brush, you say, “Look, something’s different about that toilet brush. It does not look like the toilet brush I have at home. It has a sheath, right? Like a sword.”

And you said, “Oh, I get it. I’m fighting the scum in the toilet, just like I fight in battle.” I got the joke, it’s funny, ha-ha-ha, but it’s also innovative, right? Because it protects your hand from dirty water, just like it protects your hand in battle from sharp things.

So, what happened here was Philippe Starck made a non-obvious connection between cleaning your toilet and sword fighting, and came up with something that was both funny and also innovative.

And if you look at definitions of these two words, humor and creativity, they say exactly the same thing; they’re both about making a non-obvious connection.

So, in my research, I wanted to see; one, if people who are really good at being funny, for example improv comedians, if they’re also good at coming up with innovative products.

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And if they are, how can we, as designers and artists and engineers, learn from them to be more creative in whatever we do?

So, the first test I did was we asked designers and engineers and students to come up with innovative products, and then we crowd-sourced the assessment of creativity. And one big finding from the study was that the people who came up with more ideas, came up with more ideas that people thought were creative, with a very high correlation.

And you may have heard this quote before, ‘The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.’ Well, that’s essentially what this research approved.

Now, the other big finding from this. We were testing students and we’re testing designers and we’re testing engineers, but the people way up there, those are dots, are people that are coming up with lots and lots of innovative product ideas. Those dots are the professional improv comedians. They were coming up with better product ideas than product designers.

And so I said, “I need to figure out how they’re training improv comedians.” So, I started studying improv comedy and studying improv training. and there’s a few things I found; one, normally when you think of improv comedy, you think of relaxing and when, I don’t know, we’re bonding maybe, we’re playing around, we’re lowering inhibition, stuff like that; and that’s true.

But there’s a deeper level to these improv training games that really hits on the skills that are required for being good at idea generation; things like deferring judgment, building on ideas, coming up with lots of ideas. And I put together a workshop of these games, and we did some studies with it.

And we found that if you do an improv workshop before idea generation, you come up with a lot more ideas. So, what I would like to do is play one of these games with you as an audience right now. And this game that we’re going to play is called ‘Tigers and Bears.’ Okay?

And the first step of this game is to partner with somebody in the audience, so just find one partner right now. Go! Okay, got a partner? Okay.

The second step is, you have to decide in your partnership, who is the tiger and who is the bear? Okay, do that now.

Okay good. So, this is a game of quantity; coming up with as many ideas as you can think of, in a very short amount of time. And the bear, you’re going to go first. And the bear has to say as many reasons the bear can think of, why bears are great? And it’s in the format, ‘bears are great because…’ so, it’s going to sound something like this. ‘Bears are great because they’re fuzzy. Bears are great because they have sharp teeth. Bears are great because they fish.’

And it doesn’t even have to be true or makes sense. Bears great because they change colors; whatever you want to say, it’s fine.

Now, the Tigers, while the bear is listing these things, the tiger is going to be counting on their paws, like this, in front of the bear because it stresses bears out.

And then after 30 seconds, we will switch.

So, we have 30 seconds on the clock. Bears, are you ready to say why you’re great? Yeah? Okay. Tigers, are you ready to count? Go!

And time. It’s time. Okay. So, we’re going to switch. And the Tigers now are going to say why tigers are great, and the Bears are going to count. All right? Go!

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Okay. So, why we played this game, has to do with one of my most recent papers on ‘when creative ideas emerge?’ And in this study, we found that the first ideas you think of are the same ideas everyone thinks of; it’s not until you get to about ten ideas when you start listing the things that very few people think of. This is what I call the ‘Novel Tale.’

And if you want creative ideas, you have to push yourself past those first handful of ideas into this novel area. So, you might be saying, okay, what we’re playing around, we’re goofing off, aren’t we just going to come up with silly ideas?

And the answer to that is ‘No’ for a few reasons. The first reason is that when you’re playing around and you’re being silly, you’re uninhibited in your thinking; and that’s what leads to discovery.

So, here’s an example. If you go to 3M innovation center, they’ll tell you this story; 3M was trying to make a nonwoven bra, and somebody was playing around with this material and they stuck the material on their face, and this led to the 3M nonwoven dust mats.

If it wasn’t okay for, you know, to goof around basically, this wouldn’t have been happened. Right?

So the second reason why it’s okay to be silly is that the silly products can sometimes be more effective. Here’s an example from the Schiphol Airport. About 20 years ago, they started adding a fly on the urinal in the airports. And it did studies, and they found that the urinals that have a fly on them had 80 percent less spillage. So, by adding this challenge to this activity, it made it a lot more effective.

Here’s another example, also from Holland. This is in a theme park called Efteling. And their trash bins are these characters and they’re all connected to a vacuum system, and they say ‘Pup in here’ which is like, ‘feed me your trash.’ And what happens is the children run around the theme park and then clean everything. Okay.

The last reason why it’s okay to have these silly ideas is because the things that we think are silly today, might be innovative in the future. And it’s not just me saying this, it’s also Einstein.

So, here’s two examples. That’s Rosie from the Jetsons, and Rosie is about 50 something years old. And when she came out, I was hilarious. There’s a robot that’s follows you around; everything’s on the floor and right now it is like, ‘Oh, that’s a pretty good idea.’

Wallace is over here on the other side. And maybe 20 something years ago, he invented these mechanical trousers that help him walk around the house. And today, there are exoskeletons that are helping soldiers walk around in the field.

So, why am I telling you all this? Well, in the future, you are going to have some really silly ideas. And maybe, people are going to laugh at your really silly ideas, but you don’t want to throw them out. You want to hold onto these ideas because you never know, one of these things might actually be innovation in disguise.

Thank you.

Resources for Further Reading:

Our Approach to Innovation is Dead Wrong: Diana Kander (Transcript)

Boredom – the Real Secret Behind Innovation: Mark Applebaum at TEDxStanford (Transcript)

Guy Kawasaki Discusses The Art of Innovation at TEDxBerkeley (Transcript)

How Everyone Can Make Their Dreams Reality: Tom Oliver (Transcript)