The Spark Gap Theory


This note explains why you find some jokes to be funnier than others, why some people find the same joke funnier than other people, and why a joke isn't as funny the second time around.  It all has to do with ego and the sense of self satisfaction.  We start with a model for jokes and then generalize it to the Spark Gap Theory.

First, some background.  According to high school physics, a Spark Gap consists of two conductors separated by a short distance.  A high voltage potential is applied to the two conductors.  If the voltage is high enough, then the air in the gap between the conductors ionizes and a current flows through the gap.  This causes a spark similar to lightning.  Some basic characteristics about this phenomenon are:

·        The wider the gap, the higher the voltage needed to cause a spark.  If the gap is small then a relatively low voltage can cause a spark.  For the graphically minded, imagine a straightish line on a log-log plot.  A German guy called Paschen worked on this first.

OK, here is the basic model:

That is all there is to it.  Now let's see how the model works.  When a person hears a joke, they apply their "voltage" (intelligence & knowledge) to it.  The joke's funniness is  proportional to how hard they had to think to "get" it.  A joke that requires 90% effort will be funnier than a joke that requires only 10% of the available voltage.  When a person says "that was funny", they are really congratulating themselves for being clever enough to get the joke.  The harder they had to work, the greater the self-satisfaction of "getting" the joke.  It's is like they are saying, "Wow, that was hard to figure out, but I did it, and so I must be clever" and then they feel good.  Hence, a joke that does not require much effort to "get" is deemed to be lame and not that funny. 

To visualize this, let's start simple.  Say that each joke has a "Threshold voltage" and each person has an "Intelligence" rating.  There is one more dimension, which will be explained later.  Say a set of scored jokes are presented to a group of scored people.  Each joke's scores from all the recipients are plotted as shown in the curve shown below.  People with low "Available Voltage" would not get the joke and would score it low.  Hence the curve starts low on the Y axis.  The curve peaks rapidly to a point where it is most accessible to a set of people, and then tapers down.  The part of the curve with the steepest rise is the threshold voltage for this joke.  This joke would be best appreciated by those with an "available voltage" that is slightly higher than the threshold, i.e., the zone shaded blue.  People with a lower voltage may not get the joke at all, and those with much higher voltage may not appreciate it as much. 

That explains why the same joke isn't as funny to one person as it is to another, different people have different voltages.  It also explains why kids or "unsophisticated" people find lame jokes funny; they had low voltages and applied a greater fraction of their "available voltage".  When a person hears the same joke again, it is not as hard to re-make the connection, and hence it is not that funny.  And if the person doesn't get the joke quickly enough, their ego is insulted and they walk away in a huff mumbling something like "dumb joke."

This model treats a joke as a puzzle.  This includes puns, stories with punch lines, etc.  But there are other things that make people laugh, like when bad things happen to people that we don't like, put downs of Hitlers & mother-in-laws, etc.  The model does not address those jokes, even though they can be categorized under the parent class of "humor."

To make things complicated, a joke could cover more than one "Subject areas", like there can be nerdy electrical engineering jokes, or jokes that deal with kids, cookery, ...  The subject area relates to the person's knowledge in that area.  We can redefine each person's "Available voltage" as a function of the person's intelligence and subject area knowledge.  An intelligent person who is knowledgeable in one subject could be totally ignorant in a different subject.  So someone who doesn't know much about science would have to strain harder to get a science joke, and thus would laugh harder than a science major would for the same joke.  A person could have varying levels of knowledge in multiple subjects, which also factors in the person's preference for jokes in that subject.  "Dirty jokes" would definitely be one such "subject" which may explain why my wife doesn't find them funny. 

To make all this practical, we need a way to estimate values for each joke and person.  According to this model, no joke is equally funny to all people.  So we would first need a way to categorize jokes and people.  There seem to be two ways to proceed, the old fashioned Algorithmic plan and a Machine Learning approach.  We will try to combine the two:

·        We could start with a group of testers to view and rate jokes.  They would initially be given a quiz to quantify their relative intelligence and subject knowledge.  This sounds iffy, but fortunately, this group will not be needed after the "training" period once the joke stream is well established.

How can we use this model? 

The key aspect of this model is the claim that people feel good when they make a spark and "get" the connection.  It generalizes to other areas where people have to make connections, like Education.  Applying this theory to Education implies that learning can be made fun if it follows the Spark Gap guidelines.  Educational material should be "tuned" for each student so that each lesson generates a satisfying "spark", an instant gratification at each step.  They can be modeled on video games where players advance to the next level. 

This argues against classrooms and textbooks where every student gets the same material.  Instead you have a system that delivers material specifically adjusted for each student.  By itself, this is not a revolutionary idea.  However, the theory can quantify students and lessons for better matching.  It also provides some other insights, like for high achievers, remove a few explanations from the lessons to make it harder to "get", so they don't get bored.

One can also use this technique while making presentations to a tough audience, like senior executives.  The information presented should be stepped so that the audience makes the first couple of connections.  That would fluff their egos sufficiently and they would then be in a better mood to agree to whatever is being requested of them.

Finally, if you got this far, here is a joke as your reward:  A reporter visits a mental asylum.  As he watches the patients, one of them stands up and shouts "Forty two".  All the other patients laugh.  Then another patient shouts out "Sixty three", and again all the other patients laugh.  The warden explains to the reporter that the patients have told each other the same set of jokes over and over again, and they have devised a short hand way of telling jokes.  The reporter asks if he can try telling them a joke.  He shouts out "Forty two".  No one laughs.  The warden explains to the reporter that he didn't say the joke right and blew the punch line.  The reporter asks if he can try again.  He shouts out "Forty three".  After a brief moment, everyone laughs uproariously, including the warden.  The reporter asks the warden "Did I do better this time?".  The warden wipes his eyes and replies "No, but you told them a joke that they hadn't heard before."

All in fun...



 Jan 2018  (c) Raj