Science Breaks Down Facebook Jokers

How and why people turn to medical issues to elicit electronic laughs

In an especially unsettling example of bad medical humor on Facebook, Kansas radiologist Dr. Milton Wolf recently admitted to posting several graphic images of patients. In one case, he uploaded an image of a man who had been shot in the temple as well as an X-ray that showed bullet fragments scattered throughout the man’s brain. Wolf went on to comment that the man wouldn’t be able to complain about having his X-ray taken. In another case, he posted a picture of a patient who was nearly decapitated, saying, “What kind of gun blows someone’s head off completely? I gotta get one of those.”

That and a couple other breaches of professional and human decorum on Facebook in pursuit of humor made news because Wolf is a serious contender for a U.S. Senate position. The Tea Party-aligned physician is also the author of a book titled First, Do No Harm: The President's cousin explains why his Hippocratic Oath requires him to oppose Obamacare. Wolf and Obama are second cousins once removed.

Making fun of seriously injured patients is actually the inverse of what’s scientifically proven to work well as a joke on Facebook, according to an extraordinary recent study from Dartmouth. Matt Davis with the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice led the recent study of how humor works on Facebook. They did what they call the first study of social networking conversations pertaining to health and medicine to examine the prevalence, characteristics, and success of doctor jokes posted on the site, which was recently published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

The jokes they looked at were a lot more mainstream than Wolf’s, but they regularly found twinges of darkness. “Joking about doctors and health issues is probably a good way of dealing with stress,” Davis told me.

Davis and his colleagues monitored 33,326 public Facebook users for six months, keeping track of every joke posted on a wall that referenced doctors. Thirty percent of people mentioned the word doctor during that time, though only one percent made a “joke”—which they counted only if it was a canned joke. (An introduction followed by a punch line; one meant to stand alone as a humorous statement, free from context.)

The researchers measured a joke's success in terms of electronic laughs elicited as well as the total number of likes received. They operationally defined an electronic laugh as containing one of the following responses: LOL, ROTFL, or an interjection like “baha” or “haha.” For the 11 jokes in which an electronic laugh was included in the post by the joker, as in, when you write “LOL” after your own jokes—they also operationally defined anyone who posted a doctor joke during that time as a “joker”—it was not considered evidence for (or against) a joke’s success.

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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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