5: Social Psychology of Humor

The author returns to the notion of humor as a social phenomenon, and the observation that people laugh more frequently in the presence of others than they do when they are alone - and even in the latter case humor is "pseudo-social" because we are reading a book, watching a video program, or recalling an amusing experience that involves other people.

Social psychology, which considers the way people's behavior is influenced by others, takes interest in humor as a social phenomenon. Which is to say that humor is a way in which people seek to interact with others, and plays an important role in social posturing, communication, attraction, group formation, and other areas.

Humor as Social Interaction

Laboratory studies of humor yield little information about its social aspect, in that they focused on the mechanical aspects of humor and the manner in which an individual, in isolation, interprets it. It's only recently that much attention has been given to the social aspect of humor, to the spontaneous humor of everyday life that occurs within the course of ordinary conversation.

Mirth almost always occurs in social situations, and serves a crucial role in establishing and maintaining relationships. Laughter is also inherently social, as an expression of one's emotional state to others.

Sociology recognizes that people interact with one another in serious or humorous ways in everyday discourse. In the serious mode, we attempt to be logically consistent and coherent, avoiding ambiguities, to communicate a functional message.

Incongruity is also common in human interactions, in that individuals possess an idiosyncratic interpretation of reality, even when they share the same experience. To associate with other people is to reconcile these perspectives, to recognize incongruity and paradox, and to resolve them. Social play, including humor, is an important means of doing so.

Humorous joking and playful teasing has also been seen as a way for individuals in a relationship to resolve differences, rather than escalating to a serious argument that has the potential to destabilize a relationship. The humorous mode allows them to state a disagreement while emphasizing they still value the relationship - and that the dissonance is not serious.

In group settings, humor functions to suggest normal behavior in a non-aggressive manner, particularly to express that the actions of an individual (or even oneself) are viewed as inappropriate to the culture of the group.

Interpersonal Functions of Humor

Anthropologists observed a widespread existence of "joking relationships" even in illiterate societies, in which individuals in certain social relationships were expected to interact with humor, such as joking, teasing, banter, ridicule, and practical jokes (Apte 1985).

The purpose of humor, then and even now, is to establish group identity and norms, identify insiders and candidates while excluding outsiders, and sort out the hierarchy within a group. Similar functions are served when humor is used between individuals: it is about distance, identity, and status.

Humor is also a gentle approach - because it is ambiguous, and statement may be passed off as "just joking" if it seems to give offense, particularly when rejection of the statement would cause result in punishment (challenging the status of a superior) or cause an individual to lose face (rebuff of a sexual overture).

The concept of "face" (Goffman 1967) is significant in social interactions, in which individuals often seek to confirm or improve upon their esteem, at the risk of losing the esteem they have when a suggestion of their status is publicly questioned. As such, it is a defensive strategy to ensure there is a quick retreat that will preserve esteem - and humor is an apt tool for so doing.

At this point, the author stresses that the use of humor for strategic purposes is not always intentional. Individuals may follow social protocols or imitate the behavior of others without an understanding of the reason that a certain way of doing things is functional. Just as humor enables a person to deny the seriousness of their intent to others to protect their esteem, it also enables them to deny its seriousness even to themselves to protect their self-esteem.

And all this consideration of saving face presumes that the remark will not be well-received and must be withdrawn - but few individuals will make a proposal at all if they are certain it will be rejected. Their hope is likely that their proposal will be accepted, and the conversation can transition from joking to serious when their initial "test" meets with acceptance.

Self-Disclosure, Social Probing, and Norm Validation

It has also been observed (Kane 1977) that people in a society are continuously exploring their environment to determine values, attitudes, knowledge, emotional states, agendas, and motives of other people - with an eye toward potential conflict or collaboration. This is critical to cooperative activity, which is the entire point of society.

In this way, humor is a sort of social probe in a situation where an individual is uncertain. If accepted, the conversation can become more overt; if rejected, the individual can withdraw but at the same time leave the relationship intact for other purposes. Sometimes, there is no immediate intent, and the individual is simply performing reconnaissance to gather intelligence for future use without an immediate goal.

Humor can be used to test one's place in a group: to tell a joke is an attempt to elicit laughter from others, though close attention is paid to determine whether those who are laughing are in agreement or disagreement with the statement.

Sexual relations are fraught with risks of acceptance, rejection, and misunderstanding, and humor is an effective foil for probing the potential for such relationships. It's been suggested (Long 1988) that this is the very reason that virtually every human language has a cornucopia of euphemisms and dual-entendres for sexual concepts - because sexual relations are of great interest, but are matters that risk the ego and esteem. A joke or humorous remark of a sexual nature is gentle innuendo that can easily be denied if it gives offense.

Even the choice to engage in innuendo or express humor of a sexual nature is a social signal. Consider the experiment (Farina 1970) in which college-aged men were asked to rate the funniness of various cartoons that had a sexual theme. Scores for funniness were significantly higher when the questioner was an attractive female than they were when the questioner was an unattractive one.

It has been observed that humor is used as a probe for a wide range of topics. The more sensitive a topic, the more likely that people who do not know one another's views will use humor as a way to test whether their perspectives agree before engaging in more serious conversation. Consider the popularity of jokes of a racist or sexist nature - and they way they are used to determine whether others share these perspectives.

Humor is also used as a way to express or deny fear. Sardonism and "gallows humor" enable a person who is in a difficult or dangerous situation to express their distress without seeming weak. Indeed, to laugh in the face of death is generally accepted as a sign of personal strength in many cultures.

Humor can also be used to attack social norms - to make fun of the "sacred cows" of a culture is to rebel against its core beliefs in a manner that does not generally draw attack or censure. When performed in the public domain, forms of humor such as satire can be used in a safe manner to criticize a society, in such a way that those in power (by status or majority) seem crass if they react seriously - as it is a sign of weakness to be unable to "take a joke."

(EN: Satire also functions as an investigative probe - to uncover a hidden truth by speaking about it openly and gauging how conspirators react to a "joke" that discloses something they wish to keep secret. This may not be exactly the function that the author means to explore, but it is very closely related to the topics he has discussed in this section.)


In social situations, people use humor to save face when they experience failure, have been unmasked or discovered, are caught in a lie, or find themselves engaging in inappropriate behavior. In this sense, humor is a way to "decommit" oneself from proposed, present, or past actions that would otherwise cause humiliation and sahme.

In this manner, humor is used to deescalate: when one person has issued a threat to another, meaning it as a bluff, but the other party stands firm rather than backing down, the original person can suggest his threat was not made in seriousness and avoid further escalation. The threatened party's interest in accepting the proposal that the threat was in jest avoids the escalation, which is no longer necessary: by withdrawing the threat, the first party has admitted defeat, though in a way that they can claim (even to themselves) that they were not committed to the escalation,

In an observation study of recreational sports (Palmer 1993) it was observed that while most participants engaged in verbal and physical aggression, middle-aged players were more likely to leverage humor as compared to adolescents and young men, as the latter groups were more likely to take competition seriously. Additionally, humor was likely to be used to resolve conflicts between players where the disparity in skill was more pronounced, whereas more evenly matched players were prone to escalate to violence.

The conclusion to be drawn from this study is that aggression is a form of play - and in instances where sorting out the pecking order is unimportant, it can avoid unnecessary confrontations (middle-aged men have established and accepted their position in society, and players of clearly unequal skill recognize there is nothing to be proven by aggression that is not obvious by their demonstrated skill). But in instances in which participants feel there is something at stake, and where the disparity of status cannot be otherwise demonstrated, aggression escalates to violence because establishing rank is more important than maintaining relationships.

Social Norms and Control

The decommitment function also allows individuals to use humor to test and even violate social norms by speaking about an action that would be unacceptable so as to gauge the reaction of others with the ability to dismiss the notion as non-serious if they react negatively.

However, certain forms of interpersonal humor are used to suggest or reinforce norms: to mock a behavior is to discourage others from engaging in it, whether proactively or reacting to something they have done. The unpleasantness of being teased is such that children will often modify their behavior to avoid it.

Teasing among children is a control mechanism by which one child suggests that another's behavior is unacceptable - to see if the subject of teasing will change their behavior in obedience, or if others will join in the teasing. Either of these results supports the norm and grants esteem or power to the one whose teasing is successful in controlling others.

There's also some mention of "unmasking" in which the behavior is not the subject of ridicule, but instead the teaser seeks to address the motives of the behavior - not what the person is doing but what they intend to achieve by doing so - as a means to impose norms and control the behavior of others.

Teasing is the negative reinforcement, whereas praise is its positive counterpart that is meant to encourage a person in the proper direction. Irony can be used in either instance in the form of ironic criticism ("Great game" to someone who played poorly) as well as the ironic compliment ("Too bad you suck at that" to someone who has had an obvious success).

It's suggested that irony is used to communicate a message without loss of face for either the speaker or the listener in situations where it would be inappropriate or humiliating to communicate praise or criticism openly.

Status and Hierarchy Maintenance

By the same mechanism as teasing tests and enforces social norms, it can also be used to maintain status and hierarchy within a group - those who impose their will upon others, even by gentle means, are those who hold power and rank.

To use humor at all expresses a certain level of confidence in one's own status. A "frequently cited study" (Coser 1960) observed staff meetings in a workplace, and found that humor reinforced the hierarchal structure among staff members. Those with higher status were more likely to make suggestions in an open and direct way, while those with lower statues would use humor to test acceptance of their ideas. Those with higher status often used humor to reinforce their superiority by teasing or mocking others in the group, whereas those in lower status would use self-deprecating humor or mock outsiders to the group.

Another study (Robinson 2001) applied statistical models to conversation in a 29-person task group. Those with higher status would use humor to interrupt those with lower status as a means to derail and redirect conversation to suit their own purposes, and those with lower status were less likely to use this tactic. It was also observed that men are more likely to use humor than women, and others are more likely to support humor from men than that from women, regardless of rank - which leads to the speculation that in-group ranks are often muddled by societal rankings (i.e., a woman may outrank a man in an organization, but it a male-dominated society, the gender status asserts itself against the group status).

The present-day sensitivity toward workplace harassment has done much to decrease humor in the workplace. While its original intent was to stifle open hostility, the "just joking" defense has been dismissed, which in turn disables the decommitment value of humor in general. The result of this has been a division rather than unification of the workforce, enabling those who are of the same group (gender, race, ethnicity, etc.) to use humor with one another, but not with members of other groups, and to have more casual and comfortable relations with members of their group, but to avoid social interaction with other groups.


Whereas those in positions of higher status use humor to express their dominance and demand obedience, those in positions of lower status can be seen to use humor to ingratiate themselves to others as a means of gaining attention, approval, and favor.

In general, ingratiation involves flattery, self-depreciation, expression of conformity and obedience, and feigned interpersonal similarity which are used to curry favor from ranking members of a group.

Those who are in positions of power often state a disdain for sycophantic behavior, while secretly craving it - and as such the use of humor by subordinates enable the ranking members of the group to accept gestures of ingratiation in a covert manner.

Meanwhile, the low-ranking members of the group feel empowered, even in subordinating themselves to others, by the sense that their ingratiation gives them power to manipulate their superiors - to "trick" others into favoring them, as overt favor is a demonstration of contempt. Hence subterfuge is also ion their interest.

Even the act of laughing at another person's jokes can be a form of ingratiating behavior, particularly when the joke is not particularly clever or funny it is a form of flattery. It is all the more obvious when a subordinate laughs along when personally belittled by a superior's humor.

Group Identity and Cohesion

Where teasing and derision serve to express differences in status among members of a group, there are also forms of humor that are encouraging and cohesive. The very act of teasing is in effect an expression of forgiveness for transgression, in that a person who is teased is considered to remain a member of a group in spite of their minor transgressions.

Within groups, humor becomes a common language in the form of "in-jokes" that only those who are members of the group understand, and thereby create a sense of intimacy.

Humor is also a gentle way to resolve differences within a group while maintaining the integrity of relationships. The use of humor acknowledges a conflict, suggests a resolution, and resolves the stress felt by one or both parties.

Studies of "put-down humor" (Tarrion 2002) suggest that this is a form of false mockery. Particularly when the humor disparages character rather than behavior, there is no normative motive, and is often used to express the notion that "I like you in spite of your personal flaws" rather than insisting the flaws be addressed.

Also in group situations, humor may be a signal of acquiescence. A person who jokes that another's idea is foolish, but then lends his cooperation, is showing support in spite of reluctance - and saving face if the plan should go awry.

Discourse Management

A monologue requires one party to passively listen while the other speaks, but a dialogue requires the active participation of both parties. Hence, success in conversation consists not only in focusing the content of the discussion, but also the flow.

During the course of conversation, participants take turns, exchange control, introduce and change topics, check the meaning, ensure understanding, advance the conversation, and eventually terminate it. Humor can be used for each of these control and monitoring activities.

In particular, humor is used to transition or redirect conversation that has become dysfunctional (unpleasant or unproductive) back to a more productive mode by introducing an incongruity that gives participants the option to continue the conversation on its present (negative) track or avail themselves of an alternative perspective - or at the very least humor can disrupt and terminate an unproductive thread so that the conversation can be reset in a productive mode.

Ethnographic studies of conversation (La Gaipa 1977) note that the pace of discussion becomes increasingly rapid when participants are following in the same theme or topic. The use of humor sometimes causes a shift in the theme or topic, or even when the nature of the conversation is unchanged, the pace slows and participants become more thoughtful and reflective.

This effect is particularly observed when conversation takes a negative or hostile tone, such as members of the group expressing disagreement that escalates into conflict. A humorous remark brings this behavior to a dead stop, momentarily, and the conversation can then be reevaluated and continued in a more productive manner (though there is also the possibility that, after the pause, it will continue in the same manner as before).

Humor can also be used in a disruptive manner, to prevent rather than facilitate conversation. By making funny or snide remarks, a participant can derail the conversation completely, making it impossible for others to continue along the previous thread - and in that way to interfere with the discussion when the conversation is not going the way that the saboteur would like.

Social Play

While the previous sections discussed humor that is used to accomplish a specific goal, there is also the potential for humor to be an end in itself - as a form of social play that accomplishes nothing except for the pleasure of engagement.

This type of humor most often occurs in informal situations (there is no goal for interacting) and among individuals of more or less equal rank (or in groups where rank is not significant).

In social play, participants abandon (at least temporarily) any serious social goals and play off one another, exploring the multiple meanings of words and ideas, relating funny anecdotes to share experience, and otherwise seeking to amuse one another.

It's concede that "humor for its own sake" also serves a functional purpose in enhancing group cohesiveness and strengthening social bonds, but it is reckoned that in many instances this is not an agenda that is being consciously pursued. Participants in social play are merely "having fun" and any social benefits are incidental.


Teasing is a form of humor that is inherently social in nature, which uses aggressiveness in an ambiguous way that "humiliates yet expresses affection" towards its subject, which is almost always a single individual.

It's also suggested by sociologists (Keltner 2001) that teasing is a form of provocation - it is intended to elicit a response from another individual, as a tease often involves a verbal insult that is accompanied by nonverbal indications (expressions, gestures, and tone of voice) that indicates that the insult was meant in jest. Because of this ambiguity, teasing can be use for a number of purposes, ranging from prosocial and friendly to hostile and malicious.

Teasing as Play

Where teasing takes place among friends, people say things to one another that are demeaning or critical at face value, but the playful delivery of a tease indicates that the remarks are not meant literally - and often, it is understood that they mean the exact opposite. In a sense, to offer a tease is to express confidence in the strength of the relationship - that people in a close relationship can say negative things to one another and not take offense. Consider, for example, the comedic "roast" in which friends and colleagues take turns humorously belittling a guest of honor - in essence, a sequence of humorous "toasts" made at a celebration of an accomplishment.

Teasing also encompasses decommitment in that it enables people to offer a derogatory remark directly to another person and then claim to be "only joking" to escape retaliation, except my means of being teased in return.

This gives rise to the turn-taking process if teasing, in which a party who is teased "gets even" by teasing the original teaser. The danger in this behavior is that it is a play fight that escalates into a genuine fight when one of the parties feels he has been injured or damaged. As such the "teasing game" must eventually be de-escalated intentionally to prevent it from going too far.

Teasing as a Test of Relationship Strength

However, a tease is often a test of the strength of a relationship: where the person who is offered a tease chooses to take offense, it is an indication to the teaser that the relationship is not as close or secure as he assumed. Even the most friendly tease is at face value offensive, and measures the response of the subject.

Practical jokes are similar to teasing: they are designed to humiliate someone who is expected to bear the humiliation with dignity, as the subject must have sufficient self-confidence to bear a minor humiliation without feeling he has been disparaged. Practical jokes can also escalate, to the point where harm is done and the relationship is damaged rather than bolstered.

Teasing as Manipulation

Teasing takes on a more aggressive character when it is done in relationships where there is an inequality of power: a parent teasing a child or a superior teasing a subordinate. In such instances the tease is not meant in jest, but is a method of using derision to imply a desired change in behavior. A boss who routinely teases an employee about his tardiness is sending an oblique yet unmistakable message that this behavior should be corrected, or a parent who teases a child about making friends with children of a different race or class intends to communicate their disapproval. It is less imposing than a direct order or threat.

Aggressive teasing can also be done to test the boundaries of power. In this sense, the tease is intended to cause its victim to change their behavior. This may be done among peers to sort out the pecking order, or by those in superior positions to test the bounds of their authority (a boss who "teases" an employee about his behavior outside of the workplace is seeking to extend his authority into the employee's private life).

Under normal circumstances, an individual who attempts to manipulate by teasing will relent when his intended victim refuses to comply (in effect, a declaration that the aggressor does not have the authority to make such demands). But in some instances, the aggressor will persist - teasing will become more constant and more aggressive, until it enters into the realm of bullying.

Research Studies into Teasing

One element that has been subjected to research (Keltner 1998) is the "face-threat" component to teasing, in which the teaser is attempting to damage the social esteem of his victim. An observational study of fraternity members demonstrated a marked difference in the nature of teasing between members of higher and lower status within the social unit:

In a similar study, men and women in dating relationships were asked to generate teases. Those who were least satisfied with their relationships engaged in more aggressive teasing - though this is not uncommon as other studies have observed that people are more likely to engage in positive teasing (playfully disparaging a behavior or trait that is considered to be virtuous) when they feel positively about a relationship - and more likely to engage in negative teasing (less playfully disparaging a weakness or a vice) when they feel negatively about the relationship.

It's also observed that, in general, women engage in aggressive teasing more often than men (likely because there is a cultural taboo against open aggression by women). Women are also more likely to experience negative emotions after being teased than are men. Also, people whose personalities are more humble and congenial tend to engage in less teasing of any kind than those who are more narcissistic and antisocial.

There is also the notion that teasing has an impact on observers, who are neither the teaser nor the victim. A pair of experiments (Janes 2000) evaluated the reactions of subjects who observed scenarios (actors on video) - one experiment considered reactions to witnessing teasing, a second to making self-disparaging remarks. It was found that those who viewed videos of teasing performed more poorly on tasks afterward, specifically in being more risk-averse and anxious about failure.

In essence, this suggests that a person who witnesses one person disparaging another feel themselves at greater risk of being targeted for disparagement, hence less likely to take chances and think unconventionally. The author finds it "quite remarkable" that these effects were so pronounced, given that individuals merely watched a video and the aggressive individual was not physically present during the task performance phase of the experiment.

Social Aspects of Laughter

It is possible to experience an emotion without expressing it to others, so in that sense the behaviors that occur during an emotional experience are not components of the emotion itself but instead are mechanisms to signal an individual's emotional state to others. An expression functions, intentionally or otherwise, to make others aware of a person's emotional state so that they may react to it.

Thus, laughter is inherently social: an individual who experiences mirth laughs to signal their mirth to others. Research (Provine 1989) indicates that people are 30 times more likely to laugh in the presence of others than they are to laugh when they are alone. Social laughter is louder and longer than laughter in isolation.

From an evolutionary perspective, it is believed that laughter in humans is similar to the rapid, breathy panting vocalization (along with the open-mouthed "play face") seen in primates during social play to signal that the actions of the individual should not be interpreted by others as a serious threat - and therefore prevent a serious reaction.

In that sense, the expression of laughter is social, suggesting to others that the seeming aggressor is being playful and wants others to join him in playful activity. That is, he seeks to activate similar emotions in others. This correlates to a number of modern theories of human laughter: to indicate to others that a statement is not serious, to encourage them to laugh along, and to discourage them from reacting as if a statement was meant in seriousness.

The author mentions the controversial notion on "mirror neurons" in social animals that cause them to mimic the actions they witness in others as the mechanism by which an individual experiencing mirth laughs as a means to activate laughter in others and engender in them the emotion of mirth.

(EN: More recent studies involving EEG and MRI measurements indicate that these "mirror" neurons are more cognitive than behavioral. When observing an action, even something as innocuous as walking, the same areas of the brain become active as when the observer is engaging in the activity, and they also become active when the individual is merely thinking about the activity. That is, the idea of an action - whether it is performed, witnessed, or even thought about - activates the same areas of the brain that hold the information pertaining to that activity. It is not necessarily indicative of an intent to engage in the activity, merely recognition of the idea of that activity. This does not negate the hypotheses of mirroring activity, but it does seem to eliminate the notion that mirroring is caused by this particular pattern of brain activity.)

Whatever the cause of imitative behavior, it can be observed that people often respond to the laughter of others by laughing themselves, giving rise to the notion that "laughter is contagious." Numerous studies have shown that a participant who is in the company of others who laugh are more likely to laugh themselves, and to consider the events to be funnier, than if they are alone or in the company of those who remain unemotional. Watching the reactions of others trains people in how to react.

Experiments (Prerost 1977) have observed that including a "laugh track" in a comedic video causes viewers to regard the material as being funnier, and observational studies have noted that people find comedic performances funnier when there is a large audience (provided the conditions are not rendered uncomfortable by crowding).

Other experiments (Provine 1992) found that using a device that produces the sound of laughter causes individuals to laugh even when there is no other stimulus. However, the effect is temporary: when the laughter is played too often, or for too long, it becomes annoying to listeners.

In social settings, it has been observed that laughter occurs almost exclusively at the end of completed sentences, suggesting that laughter punctuates speech. (EN: I recall a non-scientific observation that evaluates the aggressiveness of laughter, which suggested that in general, a person who laughs after you have completed a sentence is laughing with you, but a person who laughs while you are in mid-sentence is laughing at you.)

Also, people are often to be the first to laugh at something that they said themselves, such that it is their laughter rather than their statement that triggers the response in others. One study of laughter recorded people in everyday interactions, making note of the last thing that was said before laughter occurred - and in most instances, it is something entirely mundane. Based on this, it is argued that the majority of everyday laughter has nothing to do with humor, but with seeking and granting social approval.

The author suggests that since the study recorded the last thing that was stated, it may not be indicative of the actual cause of laughter. It seems likely that something said earlier in the conversation may have had humorous potential, but it merely took a few seconds for the listener to recognize and resolve the ambiguity, such that the last sentence spoken occurred while the listener was mentally processing an earlier humorous statement.

(EN: At first, it seemed to me the author is stretching a bit to dismiss the findings, but it does call to mind the comedic performers who pause for a laugh midway through the setup of the next joke, rather than leaving silence at the end of the previous one. There are also many instances in casual conversation in which a person laughs "late" and interrupts the next sentence after a humorous statement is made. The notion that there is a cognitive delay as people figure out something is funny before beginning to laugh seems entirely plausible, though this particular counterargument is poorly made.)

Regarding the frequency of laughter, one study (Vetting 2004) reviewed 48 hours of recorded conversation to discover that "bouts" of laughter (more than a passing chuckle) occurs 5.8 times in a ten-minute span, which is much higher than people indicate in self-reporting. It's posited that people do not realize how often they laugh, and may quickly forget a few moments of mirth in a longer conversation, particularly when it is a distraction rather than a component of the salient point of the conversation.

This same study echoed the previous findings: that the person to speak is most often the first to laugh, and that laughter most often occurs after sentences are completed. There was also an observation, though without much descriptive detail, that the "acoustic parameters" of laughter are variable - indicating that there may be different types of laughter for different types of humor or different subjects.

Additional study (Bachorowski 2001) involved observing the tendency of individuals to laugh along based on the kind of laughter they hear, and found that people are more likely to join when they hear "harmonically rich songlike laughs" than those that are with briefer and softer laughter that has the characteristics of a grunt, snort, or cackle. Similarly, it has been suggested (Smoski 2003) that the degree to which the quality of a responsive laugh reflects those qualities of the provocative laugh indicate the degree to which there is affiliation or cooperation between the two parties: people are not only more likely to laugh with someone they admire, but to laugh like them as well. It's noted that this is particularly evident in mixed-gender pairs: that women are more likely to match the laughter patterns of males than males are to match the pattern of females.

Considering the various research, there is considerable support for the theory that laughter is a form of social communication that is used to elicit and provide responses of sociability between participants and functions to establish and strengthen emotional bonds between people.

Social Perception and Interpersonal Attraction

Social psychologists are interested in topics such as discovering the manner in which people form impressions of one another (social perception) and the factors that lead a person to take interested in forming a closer bond with another (attraction). The author suggests humor plays an important role in both.

Social Perception

We very quickly form impressions about the people we meet, making judgments as to their motives, friendliness, and trustworthiness, and other qualities of their character. The manner in which people express humor is significant in disclosing their values, perspectivers, and general level of intelligence. A sense of humor is generally viewed as a positive characteristic in other people - provided that it matches our own.

An experiment is mentioned (Mettee 1971) in which some students were to watch a videotaped lecture. Some were told that the lecturer was aloof and humorless, others told he was somewhat clownish and indiscreet. These were matrixes against two versions of the lecture, one in which the speaker told a joke, and another in which the joke was omitted. Those who had been told to expect a humorless lecturer found the joke funnier than those who had been told to expect humor; those who were told he was humorless also rated him as seeming more competent; but both groups who saw the joke version of the lecture rated the speaker as being more likable.

Another experiment (Derks 1989) presented various scenarios to participants of both genders: a male/female individual told a cute/dirty joke to a group of friends/strangers at a party/office and everyone/nobody laughs in response. Findings were that:

In all, it can be seen that the social perception of humor depends on a number of factors, many of which are subjective. People form positive impressions of those whose sense of humor is similar to theirs, and also to those who use humor in similar situations to themselves.

Interpersonal Attraction

One consideration of humor (Cook 2001) suggests that a sense of humor is attractive because a humorous is expected to contribute more positive emotions to the relationship and is less likely to take personal offense.

An observational study (Draley 2004) placed pairs of participants in a room to perform tasks, and it was found that when humor was introduced by one of the participants, both participants rated the other as being more likeable afterward provided that the humor was non-aggressive. It's speculated that the person who received the humor experienced a positive emotion as a result of mirth, whereas the person who used humor was gratified by the other party's acceptance. In either instance, the shared experience of humor relieves anxiety and tension that arise when confronted by a stranger.

Another experiment (Cann 1997) instructed a participant to tell a joke to another person, who was an actor instructed to either laugh or refrain from laughing. Additionally, it was suggested to the participant that the actor had similar or dissimilar opinions. As predicted, those individuals who received an affirming response from the actor rated them as being more attractive even when they had been informed that the actor's views were dissimilar to them.

Humor as a Desirable Trait

A sense of humor is generally regarded as a desirable trait, though there is some difficulty in defining exactly what is meant by "a sense of humor." In a survey of 700 men and women regarding the attributes they seek in a casual sex partner, dating partner, marriage partner, same-sex friend, and opposite-sex friend, a "good sense of humor" was one of the most highly rated characteristics in all of these relationship types.

Another survey of the qualities of attractiveness find that women particularly look for a sense of humor as being more important than physical attractiveness in male partners. While men rate physical attractiveness as more important, a sense of humor is also highly desirable.

Studies have also shown that, when told a person has a sense of humor, people assume them to have other desirable traits: friendly, outgoing, considerate, pleasant, imaginative, intelligent, perceptive, and emotionally stable.

Contrary to the notion that humor is perceived as an indicator of intelligence, both males and females surveyed tend to rate humorous individuals as being slightly less intelligent than non-humorous ones, though the author does point out that the "humor" in this experiment was self-deprecating, and suggests that further research is necessary to test the effects of various kinds of humor on the perception of intelligence.

There is a brief mention of the effects of laughter on attractiveness - in that a person who can cause laughter in another is perceived as being attractive, and that when individuals laugh together, it promotes a mutual sense of attraction.

Humor and Persuasion

Given that humor is common in advertising messages and political speeches, it seems there is some perception that humor has value as a means of persuasion. However, reviewing the literature, the author found the majority of studies (8 of 14) to suggest that it has no statistically significant impact, while five studies suggested it had a positive impact, and one suggested it actually had a negative impact.

This suggests that there is no correlation between humor and persuasion in a broad sense - i.e., humor is not infallible as a method of persuasion - but neither does it dismiss humor as persuasion. It simply indicates that closer scrutiny is needed to make a more specific assessment of how some kinds of humor are more or less supportive of persuasion in specific instances.

Some examples:

Research about persuasion in general suggest there are two routes by which an audience may be approached. A direct route (you should believe X because you think Y) on which the argument is bluntly presented is most effective in instances in which the audience already agrees with or has positive sentiment about the argument being presented, or in which the audience is largely indifferent but has not strong negative emotions such that they will give attention to a logical argument. There is also an indirect route (because you believe Y you should also agree X) that is used with hostile audiences, in which there are emotional overtones and an appeal to the narcissism of the listener, in which the argument is not presented until some basis for its acceptance has been established by indirect means.

Because humor involves ambiguity and the exploration of illogical options, it is not an effective appeal to logic, but instead works on the emotional level. Said another way, humor does not deal with a person's confidence, but it does impact their comfort. Used positively, humor can make a brand seem attractive or a proposed behavior seem intelligent, or used negatively it may make a competing brand seem unattractive or a proposed behavior seem foolish.

Studies also indicate that the use of humor increases the audience's willingness to pay attention to a message, their sense of whether they "like" the individual who is delivering that message, or both. In this sense, humor does not support the argument, but puts the audience in a state in which they will be receptive to hearing it.

A more detailed study on humor and persuasion (Luttle 2001) proposes some of the consequences of humor in argumentation:

  1. By creating a positive mood, it makes the audience less likely to disagree (they wish to reciprocate for the positive emotion they have been caused to experience)
  2. By creating a positive impression of the source, humor confers the qualities of trustworthiness, honesty, and credibility
  3. When focused on understanding a humorous message, cognitive focus is given to understanding the message itself rather than formulating counterarguments
  4. Humor that conveys the humility of the speaker increases their trustworthiness, reducing the likelihood that the speaker will be perceived as arrogant or self-serving

One experiment considered the effect of mood upon receptiveness to an argument: participants watched a comedic program or a neutral one (documentary) during which there was a commercial message supporting an opposing view of a controversial topic. Those who had seen the comedic program were more inclined to change their attitudes about the topic when it was seen during the course of a comedic performance than they were when viewing a neutral program. This suggests that the experience of humor places a person in a more open and reflective state of mind afterward. (EN: It might also be considered that it causes people to think about things less seriously - as humor is by nature playful.)

It's noted that the same effect is seen in experiments in which participants were subjected to an argument after winning a prize, which suggests that positive emotions in general place people in a more congenial mood, and one in which they can listen more open-mindedly to a proposal that might otherwise have a more negative reaction.

Details are also provided about the discomfort that people have in hearing commercial messages about unpleasant subjects (in the healthcare industry, cures or preventative measures for unpleasant or embarrassing physical conditions). It was generally found that using humor to ease the introduction of an uncomfortable topic was successful in reducing anxiety, though the effect was significantly more pronounced in people with more dominant personalities.

A study of interpersonal negotiation (O'Quinn 1981) found that when one party used humor in the negotiation process by making a ridiculous offer (e.g., "if you pay $100 I'll throw in a pet frog"), the buyer tended to be amenable to paying a higher price in the resolution. It is reckoned that this is because people are more inclined to like those who use humor and wish to reciprocate for the positive emotions they have received - but also because the use of humor is a face-saving tactic, such that people are better able to take their ego off of the negotiating table.

In summary, there is no direct link between humor and logical persuasion - but humor does much to generate positive emotions and mitigate negative ones, which can be very supportive to persuasion.

Humor, Attitudes, and Prejudice

Many jokes leverage common stereotypes of groups of people, in a manner that the listener must be aware of these stereotypes in order to "get" the joke. For example, "How do you make a Scotsman deaf and mute? Ask him to donate to charity." Is only funny, or even logical, if the listener understands the stereotype of Scottish people as excessively stingy. In this sense, humor does not create nor reinforce stereotypes, but presumes (and often proves) that stereotypes already exist.

The ambiguous quality of humor also enables people to test others' perceptions in a relatively safe manner. When one tells a joke that disparages a group of people and another person laughs along, this is a signal that is interpreted to signify that the listener shares the teller's contempt for that group. Or if the joke does not solicit a laugh, the teller can suggest it was "just a joke" and distance himself from a prejudice that the listener does not share.

The trend toward political correctness has cast a dim view of humor that disparages groups of people and plays on stereotypes, and its use is much discouraged in the present day - though it must be conceded that the sentiment is based on political motives: prejudicial humor is discouraged because disparaging others is politically incorrect, not because it is not in fact funny.

The psychoanalytic theory maintains that aggressive and hostile impulses are fertile ground for humor, and the superiority theory of humor clearly accommodates the notion of using humor to disparage and humiliate others as a means to express one's own status. Both theories have a number of studies that support these connections, demonstrating that people tend to appreciate humor that disparages those groups they dislike.

Other studies meanwhile find that those people who are sympathetic towards specific groups take offense at humor that negatively portrays them - though there is also evidence that offense arises when a person holds negative attitudes about a group but wishes to express their magnitude by defending their reputation. That is, a person who objects to humor about a given ethnicity is expressing that they are unintelligent, sensitive, and need him to be their protector - which is no less discriminatory.

Other researchers (Olson 1999) suggest that humor that appears to be disparaging to groups can also be a method of creating greater tolerance. When an outsider uses humor about the negative stereotypes, he causes listeners to question whether these stereotypes are really true (the ambiguity of the humor suggests it may or may not be true, or that the notion that it is true is nonsense). When an insider uses self-deprecating humor about a group to which he belongs, he is encouraging the listener to regard these qualities as "funny" and non-serious rather than detrimental or threatening.

Additional studies, particularly into sexist humor, showed the same results: either no increase in hostility toward members of the opposite sex, or a decrease in hostility toward them, after hearing a number of jokes in that manner.

Additional analyses considered the hypothesis that humor creates or bolsters negative stereotypes. This notion has been quite widely investigated - and out of 83 analyses, there was only one that suggested that this was so. The other 82 indicated that participants' attitudes about a groups did not change after hearing or reading jokes that disparaged that group.

The author does note that many of these studies limited themselves to participants who were presumed to be prejudiced - white males - which is ironic in that a study into prejudice takes a prejudicial assumption that those groups are more inclined to express prejudice. But the author also points out that this group is generally regarded as being in a secure social position, unlikely to feel seriously threatened by other groups, and therefore the results may be different if less secure groups were studied.

Another analysis considered the impact of telling, rather than hearing, prejudicial jokes, and indicated that a person who is compelled to tell a series of jokes that deride a given group are more likely to express a lower opinion of that group afterward. It is speculated that the humor enables them to consider and accept stereotypes. However, it's also possible that the participants were merely more inclined to openly admit prejudices they felt in the first place. So further research is necessary to explore the alternative hypothesis.

There is also research that suggests that humor that derides a specific group makes people more tolerant of derision in general, in that there is a sort of spillover effect: they do not necessarily have a lower opinion of the specific group that is derided by the humor, but demonstrate lower opinions of all groups. This suffers from the same counterpoint that it may not be an increase in hostility, but greater comfort in expressing hostility.

Further experiments consider the degree to which disparagement is tolerated. People generally find jokes about groups that are overblown and melodramatic to be funnier because it is less plausible that the teller is communicating a serious belief, and is plainly saying things he believes to be silly, making it acceptable to laugh along. Conversely, jokes that seemed more subtle and plausible resulted in less mirth - laughter was more nervous than genuine - because the listener is uncertain whether the speaker is earnest in his contempt for the disparaged group.

Humor and Intimate Relationships

Earlier it was stated that a sense of humor is a desirable character in a prospective friend or romantic partner because we expect that this quality, and others presumed to accompany it, will lead to a more satisfying relationship with a partner who will be more supportive and more enjoyable to be with. However, this is all expectations based on stereotypes, and until a relationship has been initiated we do not really know whether we will get what we expect of another person - and may in fact discover that humor is not as desirable a trait as we had assumed.

Various studies are cited:

There is some speculation as to cause an effect. These studies suggest that humor makes for better relationships, but it is also possible that a person who seeks to maintain a relationship must develop a sense of humor - in effect, humor is used to be "a good loser" when they must cede to their partner and over time humor becomes a habit. Even if this is the case, it still stands to reason that a person who has a good sense of humor prior to being in a "losing" situation will apply that sense of humor - whereas a duller person will have to develop it, which takes greater effort and time and may not be successful.

Ion all, the author suggests that the research generally supports the notion that a sense of humor is valuable in sustaining a relationship but there are instances in which it can also undermine a relationship. Much depends on the style of humor and the ways in which it is used between partners.

Humor and Gender

While there is quite some data about gender differences, it is very often questionable, as studies prior to the women's movement and those afterward have significantly different findings.

Prior to the women's movement, the view of humor is that men were more likely to initiate it and women were more likely to react, that men's humor was more aggressive in nature and women's was more nonsensical, and that both sexes found humor that disparaged women to be more acceptable than humor that disparaged men.

The author suggests that these findings may have been skewed due to the way in which humor is commonly studied: using "canned" jokes and cartoons to test humor, which are rather uncommon given that most humor in real life consists of humorous phrases and anecdotes that arise spontaneously during the course of conversation. A few studies from the late 1980s and 1990s have indicated that canned humor is more appealing to men than it is to women, and as such experiments that use these forms of humor as a basis for research will naturally have gender-biased outcomes.

(EN: A more sinister reason suggests that the objectivity of "science" is questionable when results tend to correlate with political sentiments whether those of the mainstream or of an opposition. Granted, any scientific study can be used in arrears to support one agenda or another, but when the preponderance of scientific activity supports a given agenda, subjectivity seems an entirely reasonable explanation.)

Also, because of women's lower status in society, it can be observed that humor prior to the women's movement often made women the target of disparagement - and as such it is little wonder that women did not find jokes that disparaged them to be funny, and developed a dim view of humor in general.

The author cites several reviews of literature that observe that studies in which the humor used was non-aggressive toward women, there was far less gender disparity in the findings. This even holds true of humor of a sexual nature: women are just as likely as men to enjoy sexually-oriented humor so long as the humor in question was not disparaging of women.

The author lists several researchers who had repeated experiments, altering the content of the humor used to expurgate aggression, and come to significantly different findings as a result. He also suggests that more contemporary research is aware of this bias and accounts for it in experimental design - and furthermore, given that humor "in the wild" is often spontaneous and conversational, research in general has moved away from exclusively using canned humor, which is inherently of greater interest to men than women.

Given that all of this is fairly recent, we are likely only beginning to get a more accurate understanding of humor in general, and gender differences in the perception of humor specifically.

A rather elaborate survey into humor (Crawford 1991) found that there are not very many differences between men and women in regard to the topics, types, and styles of humor they claim to find amusing. For example, no gendered differences were apparent in the frequency with which a person produces humor, whether they are comfortable laughing at themselves, the enjoyment of comics in newspapers and magazines, and the appreciation of sexual humor. However, it was found that women have greater appreciation of anecdotal humor, particularly when they can relate to the characters or situations depicted.

The author then refers to his own "humor diary" study in which participants were asked to keep a record of the things that made them laugh. He notes that men and women didn't differ in the frequency of laughter (averaging 17.5 incidents per day), though women were more likely to report instances in which humor arose spontaneously and men were more likely to report instances in which humor was intentionally delivered (by the media or by someone performing a canned joke).

Another study (Hay 2000) made video recordings of cocktail-party conversations among same-sex or mixed-sex groups, which found women to be more likely to use inclusive humor designed to create a sense of similarity or harmony among groups, and used this "solidarity humor" eight times more often than men. Women also tend to use humor in a way that enabled them to disclose personal information to others, and encourage others to do the same, as a basis for creating a sense of trust.

The same study found that more aggressive forms of humor, particularly those that are used to sort out the social order by expressing one's own status or questioning someone else's, were far more common in same-sex groups than in mixed-sex groups. The use of humor for coping was also more common in same-sex groups - though men used humor in reference to the topic of conversation whereas women used it to introduce or include new topics.

The author mentions that these studies show a trend in research, to move from "jokes in the laboratory" to observation of humor in its natural form and in its natural environment. However, ethnography studies being difficult and time-consuming to conduct, they tend to be very limited in their scope (the Hay study, above, involved only 18 conversations) and subjective in their interpretation - so much more data must be gathered and analyzed before they can be taken as more scientific than anecdotal evidence.

It's also noted that humor is not the goal of conversation - people generally do not gather and converse for the purpose of taking turns being funny. Instead, humor is a technique or a tool that is used in conversations whose main purpose is to accomplish something else (even causal conversation often has a goal - to share social identity, build harmony, and sort out the pecking order) - and it is highly likely that humor must be sorted out according to its use, rather than isolated as a phenomenon unto itself.