In Study 1, we decided to explore people’s perceptions of their
competence in a domain that requires sophisticated knowledge and wisdom about the tastes and reactions of other people. That domain was humor. To anticipate what is and what others will find
funny, one must have subtle and tacit knowledge about other
people’s tastes. Thus, in Study 1 we presented participants with a
series of jokes and asked them to rate the humor of each one.
We then compared their ratings with those provided by a panel of
experts, namely, professional comedians who make their living by
recognizing what is funny and reporting it to their audiences. By
comparing each participant’s ratings with those of our expert
panel, we could roughly assess participants’ ability to spot humor.
Our key interest was how perceptions of that ability converged
with actual ability. Specifically, we wanted to discover whether
those who did poorly on our measure would recognize the low
quality of their performance. Would they recognize it or would
they be unaware?
Participants. Participants were 65 Cornell University undergraduates from a variety of courses in psychology who earned extra credit for their participation.
Materials. We created a 30-item questionnaire made up of jokes we felt were of varying comedic value. Jokes were taken from Woody Allen (1975), Al Frankin (1992), and a book of “really silly” pet jokes by Jeff Rovin (1996). To assess joke quality, we contacted several professional comedians via electronic mail and asked them to rate each joke on a scale ranging from 1 (not at all funny) to 11 (very funny). Eight comedians responded to our request (Bob Crawford, Costaki Economopoulos, Paul
Frisbie, Kathleen Madigan, Ann Rose, Allan Sitterson, David Spark, and Dan St. Paul). Although the ratings provided by the eight comedians were moderately reliable (a = .72), an analysis of interrater correlations found that one (and only one) comedian’s ratings failed to correlate positively
with the others (mean r = -.09). We thus excluded this comedian’s ratings in our calculation of the humor value of each joke, yielding a final a of .76.
Expert ratings revealed that jokes ranged from the not so funny (e.g., “Question: What is big as a man, but weighs nothing? Answer: His shadow.” Mean expert rating = 1.3) to the very funny (e.g., “If a kid asks where rain comes from, I think a cute thing to tell him is ’God is crying.’ And if he asks why God is crying, another cute thing to tell him is ’probably because of something you did.’” Mean expert rating = 9.6).
Procedure. Participants rated each joke on the same 11-point scale used by the comedians. Afterward, participants compared their “ability to recognize what’s funny” with that of the average Cornell student by providing a percentile ranking. In this and in all subsequent studies, we explained that percentile rankings could range from 0 (I’m at the very bottom) to 50 (I’m exactly average) to 99 (I’m at the very top).