Effects of Humor in Task-Oriented Human-Computer Interaction and Computer-Mediated Communication: A Direct Test of SRCT Theory

John Morkes
Trilogy Software

Seminar on People, Computers, and Design
Stanford University February 25, 2000

The use of humor is becoming more prevalent in people's interactions with computers. (Recent examples are Microsoft's Office Assistant and the application "electronic Laugh Out Loud,"). However, little published research exists on whether humor is a positive or a negative in task-oriented human-computer interaction (HCI). The prevailing notion is that humor distracts users, wastes their time, and may cause them to take their work less seriously. Four experiments examined the effects of successful and unsuccessful humor in task situations involving HCI and computer-mediated communication (CMC). The studies used the same between-subjects design and essentially the same experimental method. Data from the studies were compared in a direct test of the Social Responses to Communication Technologies (SRCT) claim that people respond to humans and computers in identical ways.

Experiments 1 and 2 each had a 2-condition (successful humor or control) between-subjects design. In the first experiment, participants worked on a task, ostensibly with another person in a different room, via a networked computer (CMC). All participants received preprogrammed comments, differing only in whether they contained humor. Humor participants rated the "other person" as more likable and reported greater cooperation with and similarity to the "other person." They also made more jokes and responded more sociably. Task time and the amount of effort participants put into the task were unaffected by humor. In the second experiment, participants were told they were interacting with a computer in another room (HCI). The results from Experiment 2 were generally consistent with those from Experiment 1. However, HCI participants were less sociable, demonstrated less mirth, felt less similar to their interaction partner, and spent less time on the task. The results suggest both that humor may enhance likability of an interface?without distracting users?and that SRCT theory should be revised.

Experiments 3 and 4 replicated and extended the first two experiments, with additional measures and conditions that used jokes seen as unfunny. For each of these experiments, a 3-condition (successful humor, unsuccessful humor or control) between-subjects design was used. Results from the CMC study, Experiment 3, were mostly consistent with those from Experiment 1, and they showed few differences between measures for the unsuccessful-humor and control groups. New measures showed no effects for negative affect or recall memory, but the unsuccessful-humor group responded more unsociably than the others. The Experiment 4 results were generally consistent with those from Experiment 3 and SRCT theory. But comparisons of the data from the HCI and CMC experiments showed that compared to HCI participants, CMC participants felt more similar to their interaction partner, were more sociable, demonstrated more mirth and more negative affect, and liked their partner less, again suggesting a revision to the SRCT model.

The talk will include a discussion of the study's implications for interaction design and SRCT theory, examples of humor in user interfaces, and guidelines for the use of humor in HCI. This talk is based on a paper (by John Morkes, Hadyn K. Kernal and Clifford Nass) accepted for publication in the journal Human-Computer Interaction.

John Morkes is the director of the Human-Computer Interaction Group at Trilogy Software, a provider of business-to-consumer and business-to-business e-commerce software. He has a Ph.D. in Communication Theory and Research from Stanford.


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