Ambiguity and inference processing in verbal jokes: Analyses of eye movement

Hsin I. Lu, Yu Chen Chan*, Hsueh Chih Chen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


Humor is a high-level cognitive ability in humans. In jokes, it is the humor-generating technique and not the content of the humorous stimulus that generates amusement. Eye-tracking techniques can provide a direct and objective recording of participants’ internal representations in various cognitive and affective processes. The present study thus aimed to compare the cognitive and affective processes associated with distinct humor techniques (i.e., ambiguity and inference jokes) by using eye-tracking techniques, with both objective eye movement indices and subjective ratings. Sixty-eight participants participated in two experiments that had within-subjects designs. Experiment 1 investigated various categories of ambiguity jokes by using stimulus categories (phonological jokes, phonological nonjokes, semantic jokes, semantic nonjokes, syntactic jokes, and syntactic nonjokes) as independent variables and both objective eye movement indices (first pass gaze duration, total viewing time, average fixation counts, regression counts, and average pupil size) and subjective ratings (comprehensibility and funniness) as dependent variables. Results supported the hypothesis that first-pass gaze durations for setup lines do not differ significantly between jokes and nonjokes. Additionally, total viewing time and regression counts were shorter and lower, respectively, while reading phonologically ambiguous jokes than for syntactically ambiguous ones. Experiment 2 compared the effects of semantically inferential and semantically ambiguous jokes. The experimental design was the same as in experiment 1, except that the stimulus categories were semantically ambiguous jokes, semantically ambiguous nonjokes, bridging inferential jokes, bridging inferential nonjokes, elaborative inferential jokes, and elaborative inferential nonjokes. Results demonstrated that total viewing time was longer, regression counts were higher, and average pupil size was bigger for inferential jokes (bridging inferential jokes and elaborative inferential jokes) than for semantically ambiguous jokes. It was concluded that the cognitive processing of inferential joke takes more time and is more complicated than that of semantically ambiguous jokes, and this consequently results in deeper cognitive involvement and amusement. Taken together, the results of the present study indicate that the greatest pleasure accompanies this cognitive comprehensibility with the deeper semantic processing but that joke techniques also play a major role. Future research might use neuroimaging techniques to further investigate the neural correlates of cognitive, affective, and laughter processing of various types of joke techniques as well as design humor training courses on joke techniques.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)587-609
Number of pages23
JournalBulletin of Educational Psychology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2019 Jun


  • Ambiguity jokes
  • Eye tracking
  • Humor techniques
  • Inference jokes
  • Joke categories

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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