Why Some People Love Telling Bad Jokes, According to Science

Most people will know someone who loves to make others wince with a bad joke. For some individuals, though, having a dodgy sense of humor is a compulsion that can affect their day-to-day lives.

The condition of pathological joking is known as witzelsucht, described as the excessive telling of inappropriate or pointless jokes. The word comes from the German words for joke, 'witz', and addiction, 'sucht'.

The condition was investigated in a 2016 study by California doctors Elias Granadillo and Mario Mendez. They outlined two cases: One of a 69-year-old man, who experienced a personality change, developing a tendency to compulsively make jokes after he experienced a bleed in the brain ten years prior. He also developed characteristics such as a fixation on recycling, and began making "borderline offensive comments."

Man having idea
A stock image depicts a man thinking and having an idea. Certain types of brain damage may be linked to a condition called witzelsucht, in which people compulsively make jokes. Slphotography/Getty

The patient himself said in an interview—which no doubt was slightly difficult as the patient kept cracking jokes—that he reported feeling happy generally but that his compulsive need to make jokes had become an issue with his wife and would even wake her up in the middle of the night to tell them to her.

The other patient investigated in the study was a 57-year-old man whose behavior had become erratic around three years prior. He had started to tell childish jokes and laugh easily at his own comments and was generally lacking inhibition. He also purchased almost two dozen Hawaiian shirts and at one point went six weeks without bathing.

Otherwise, he had mostly normal results from neurologic examination and an unremarkable medical history. He died over a decade later after deteriorating in cognition and developing parkinsonism; an autopsy also revealed that he had Pick's disease, a form of the behavioral variant of Frontotemporal dementia (bvFTD).

The authors of the 2016 study concluded that the two patients' pathological humor was linked to damage in the bifrontal areas of their brains. One aspect that linked them was that although they would find their own jokes very funny, they did not experience other peoples' jokes as amusing.

The study notes that damage to the right frontal lobe in particular appeared to be "critical" to pathological humor.

"Patients with right frontal lesions remain sensitive to simple jokes, slapstick, or puns, but they are impaired in appreciating externally generated, nonsimple, or novel jokes," the study reads. "They may not appreciate the relationship of their punchlines to their storylines and do not experience their funniness, preferring unfunny endings. Hence, patients with right frontal lesions, like those with bvFTD, are prone to simple, silly jokes."

The authors said that further research can clarify the mechanism of witzelsucht and suggest how it can be managed.

The study, titled 'Pathological Joking or Witzelsucht Revisited,' was published in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences in 2016.