7: Personality Approaches to the Sense of Humor

Consider the way that you describe a person to someone who has never met them: you will likely begin with remarks about their physical appearance, then speak a bit about their personality - and most likely their sense of humor (or lack thereof) would be mentioned. Statements such as "he makes me laugh" or "she sees the funny side of things" are not uncommon, indicating that a person's set of humor is a personality trait (actually a set of traits) that distinguish them as an individual.

Personality itself is defined as "an individual's habitual way of thinking, feeling, perceiving, and reacting to the world" that allow others to make predictions about how they will behave in various situations. The ability to predict a person's actions engenders a feeling of security in being around them, and enables us to trust in them. While the behavior that arises from personality is often inconsequential, having a consistent personality is nonetheless important to social connectivity.

Humor figures significantly into personality, as it impacts the way people think, feel, and react to the environment and other individuals. It seems somewhat ironic that humor is often banished from the laboratory, and participants in a study are counseled to take matters seriously and chided for joking around - when being non-serious and joking reflect their natural behaviors. The results of such studies, in attempting to suppress humor, are quite likely flawed as a result of their attempt to be serious.

More recent studies have come to accept that humor is in fact natural behavior and should be considered as valid in the context of personality studies. Both the study of humor in itself and the acceptance of humor in studies of other personality related phenomena have yielded some interesting results that may lead to the reconsideration of some of the hypotheses that were previously accepted.

What is "Sense of Humor"?

The original meaning of "sense of humor" had an aesthetic connotation, referring to a person's capacity to perceive and appreciate humor. It was akin to having an ear for music or an eye for beauty in artwork. These senses were a quality of the individual, and having them entailed ability to find pleasure in a way that was self-satisfying but granted no benefit to others.

However, this began to change in the nineteenth century. Since then, a person's "sense of humor" was something that others could appreciate when it was expressed. The individual with a sense of humor did not merely amuse himself, but shared the amusement with others by describing to them the things he found amusing, or who produced humor for others to enjoy.

(EN: I think that both definitions are still in use. A person may opt to chuckle to himself about something he does not share with others, or he may share the humor he has perceived or conceived with them. The first is a bit antisocial and makes people uncomfortable, as they likely suspect they are being mocked.)

Most people tend to think they have a healthy sense of humor, and likely overestimate this. In one survey (Lefcourt 1986) 96% of respondents indicated that they have an "average" or "above average" sense of humor, with only 4% admitting their sense of humor is sub-par. The author asserts that if people were realistic, it would be a perfect 50/50 split.

(EN: I disagree. In a regular distribution, 68% of people are within one standard deviation of the norm, and would consider themselves to be average, the other 32% are beyond one standard deviation, each in the opposite direction - if the estimation were accurate, 84% of people would consider themselves "average or above" and the remaining 16% who were more than one standard deviation below the norm would recognize that they are below average. So the results really aren't that badly skewed, given that "sense of humor" is a vague concept and doesn't lend itself to measurement or quantification.)

It has also been found (Cann 2001) that a sense of humor is associated to positive qualities of character: a person who has a sense of humor is regarded as friendly, pleasant, intelligent, imaginative, perceptive, agreeable, emotionally stable, etc. But at the same time, there are negative qualities attached: arrogance, aggressiveness, silly, and immature. In effect, a sense of humor makes a person likable, but also a bit untrustworthy.

With this in mind, it's likely that the skew in peoples' perception is the result of a desire to perceive or depict themselves as being a person of positive qualities. It is much in the same way that people wish to believe that they are intelligent or attractive.

Additionally, "sense of humor" is often perceived as one's ability to appreciate the humor created by others, regardless of one's own creative capacity. That is, a person who is able to experience amusement in the stories others tell considers himself to have a good sense of humor, even if he is entirely unable to tell an amusing story of his own. And when it comes to producing humor, a person who cannot invent a joke but merely retells jokes he has heard is also likely to regard himself as having a good sense of humor.

The author lists the various factors that lead a person to evaluate someone (including himself) as having a good sense of humor:

  1. Comprehension - The ability to understand a joke told by someone else
  2. Appreciation - Their tendency to find things to be funny (as opposed to recognizing that something should be funny, but not being amused by it)
  3. Expression - The willingness to laugh when they find something to be amusing
  4. Motivation - The degree to which they will seek out experiences that will make them laugh
  5. Memory - Their ability to call to mind humorous stories and experiences
  6. Function - Their likelihood to use humor as a coping mechanism
  7. Performance - Their ability to repeat a joke or anecdote they picked up from another source
  8. Humility - The ability to find humor in one's own foibles and mistakes
  9. Creation - Their ability to devise a joke or phrase that others find humorous

These various qualities can generally be broken into three basic qualities

Overall, a person's sense of humor reflects their habitual behavior patterns: whether they are prone to experience or produce humor as a matter of course in everyday life; whether they are more passive (appreciating humor offered by others) or active (offering humor to others) in their approach to humor; and the types of situations in which they are most likely to find/produce humor.

Additionally, when rating others, people consider not merely the degree to which a person has a sense of humor, but the degree to which it matches their own. A person who finds things funny in the same nature and degree as oneself has a fine sense of humor; one who finds less things funny is lacking in their sense of humor; and one who finds more things funny has a better sense of humor - but only if, when they explain them, we find them to be funny ourselves (otherwise, we consider them to have an inappropriate, immature, or sick sense of humor).

In all, sense of humor is a vague concept that is understood in various ways, and while research has shed some light on the qualities that lead us to perceive sense of humor in ourselves and others, the matter is so complex and subjective that the research findings may have only a general correlation to our perceptions in the natural course of everyday social encounters.

Individual Differences in Humor Appreciation

The poet Goethe suggested that "men show their character in nothing more clearly than by what they think laughable," and the idea has largely been accepted by the field of psychology: asking a patient to tell their favorite jokes, or telling them jokes and observing their responses, is believed to provide insight into their character, values, and beliefs.

The author mentions psychological tests of humor, which have been used by various personality researchers over the past fifty years. These test are variously configured to measure a person's sense of humor against a theory of humor - and as such are geared to measure different things, whether asking about social situations where humor is used or experienced, rating the funniness of jokes or cartoons, or other factors.

Theoretical Content Approaches

In many humor appreciation tests, the researchers categorized jokes and cartoon that would be presented to subjects according to an existing theory of humor. For example, a psychoanalytic researcher would categorize cartoons regarding whether they contained aggressive or sexual overtones, both or neither, and measure the results according to what he presumed to be the cause of humor.

The obvious flaw in this methodology is that the researcher presumed to know what was funny, and collected data that would indicate the degree to which subjects agreed with his preconceived notions. There was no opportunity to discover what participants found to be humorous, merely an opportunity to determine the degree to which their humor correlated to the researcher's presumptions. And , not surprisingly, the outcome was often that the experiment proved the assumptions of the researcher to be correct.

Although "some interesting results have been obtained" the questionable practice of measuring the degree to which test subjects agree with a foregone conclusion renders these studies questionable in terms of their reliability and validity. Looking at the methodology, researchers did not empirically validate that their categorizations of humor were reliable, nor did the test the assumption that participants evaluations derived from the same basis: they merely assumed they knew the reason a joke was funny, and assumed that if a test subject found it to be funny it was for the reason they had anticipated.

A particular study (Landis 1933) clearly demonstrated that participants asked to categorize cartoons did not classify them in the same way that researchers presumed - that is, people have different reasons for which they think something is funny. Further, when given a classification schema and a number of jokes or cartoons, there was little correlation between the way in which subjects sorted the cartoons and the way in which researchers presumed they would be sorted.

All of this is to say that scientific research into the classification of humor are not reliable is assessing what people find to be funny, but merely assess the degree to which their sense of humor agrees with that of the researchers.

Factor Analytic Studies

Factor analytic studies do not begin with an existing theory of humor and attempt to measure the degree to which test subjects agree with the researcher's presumptions, but instead attempt to categorize the humor (story or cartoon) that is being used as an instrument to define as many descriptive terms as possible, then statistically correlate the degree to which a test subject found humor in the instrument to those qualities.

For example, a joke which begins with a priest and a clown sitting in a red taxicab would be considered to involve the themes of priest, clown, sitting, red, and taxicab - along with all the other things, actions, and qualities reflected in the rest of the joke. The funniness rating would be attached to each of these factors and compared with a large number of other jokes to determine which factors were common in jokes that people found to be funny, both individually and in correlation to one another.

Early factor analytic studies (Eysenk 1942, 1943) recognized that most theories of humor remained highly theoretical and speculative, and sought to use statistical methods to determine empirical correlations, though he began with a relatively simple analyses based on parameters such as sexual/nonsexual, simple/complex, and personal/impersonal. Scores were sorted according to personality according to yet another factorial test. This yielded findings such as extraverts prefer simple jokes whereas introverts prefer complex ones.

The author mentions a few different studies by which the same researcher analyzed humor: one considered whether humor was related to reason, motivation, or emotion, etc. Most importantly, his approach used a statistical method of evaluation that was based on qualitative assessments of humorous material that did not deriver from a preconceived notion of what people would find humorous.

Another pioneer (Carnell 1947) used a two-phased approach, the first of which asked participants (rather than researchers) to indicate what made a given joke funny, derived thirteen categories of jokes, then res-sorted the items according to these categories. The second phase considered the degree to which the items were found to be humorous by participants who had not participated in the categorization.

The experiment matrixed the degree to which participants found jokes in the 13 categories against the 10 personality types of the then-popular Guilford-Martin temperament inventory. Admittedly, this temperament inventory had a number of weaknesses and was never widely used, and as such the findings of this study were not widely appreciated, though the methodology seemed extremely sound in comparison to previous ones.

Ruch's Factor Analytic Investigations

The author turns to the extensive work of Willibald Ruch, who investigated the factor analytic approach to the study of humor in a way that author finds to be thorough and systematic.

The author provides a bit of detail on the breadth of the research (number of subjects and jokes) as well as the meticulous way in which the research team attempted to avoid biasing the assessment by the categorization and evaluation of humor. (EN: I'm skipping much of the detail, but it's rather impressive.)

The study considered incongruity resolution first - whether the subject was able to understand the joke, regardless of whether he found it to be funny, as indicated by his ability to identify the incongruity and indicate the manner in which it could be interpreted and ultimately resolved. By so doing, the researchers were able to sort out the responses from individuals who didn't get the joke at all from those who got it but didn't consider it to be amusing.

A second factor was the degree to which a joke is nonsensical. Some forms of humor are regarded as funny simply because they present an absurd situation, for which there can be no logical resolution. The cartoons of Gary Larson are an excellent example of illustrations of absurd situations that have no logical resolution. This analysis sorts out the kind of person whose sense of humor is triggered by a nonsensical situation, as opposed to the one whose sense of humor is triggered in the resolution of ambiguity.

The third factor considered whether the humor was based on, or contained, any sexual content - in terms of overtones, innuendo, or overt references to sexuality. This factor had more to do with the content than the structure or mechanism of the joke, but given that a great deal of humor involves sexual themes, it could not be excluded. This factor separates those who are prone to laugh out of nervousness at an uncomfortable topic from those who laugh out of humor.

Similarly, aggressiveness was taken into consideration, as it has a similar effect: some people will exhibit nervous or social laughter when a joke requires them to consider stereotypes (race, class, gender, age, religion, etc.) or may restrain laughter out of their political sensibilities rather than their sense of humor.

From here, the author goes back into considerations of the methodology, which culminate in the development of a 3WD model of humor and a long-form (50 item) and short-form (35 item) test by which subjects reactions to humor could be evaluated and compared to their personality factors.

Personality and Humor

Various studies have been done to determine whether there is statistical correlation between personality traits and the kinds of humor that an individual finds to be amusing.

The author considers that the three dimensions of humor defined by Rach have "gone a long way" toward enabling researchers to correlate personality traits to the kinds of humor people appreciate. The fact that correlation exists supports the notion that what a person finds to be funny is not only dependent on his personality, but indicative of it, and that he use of humor as a diagnostic tool is plausible.

Self-Report Measures of Sense of Humor Dimensions

The author reflects on the limitations of research: it involves only "canned" forms of humor that the researchers presume to be funny. It does not reflect the kind of humor most people encounter in everyday life (spontaneous conversational) nor a person's habits or abilities in producing humor. As such, research presents an incomplete, inaccurate, and highly skewed representation.

The "humor appreciation" approach has yielded "interesting information" about the way in which humor is perceived and experienced, given an individual's personality - though this is also out of any normal context: it is the personality a person exhibits in the situation of the experiment, the environment of a lab, while acting with strangers whom he knows to be observing him.

For those reasons, researchers have leveraged tools such as surveys and self-reporting instruments (such as diaries) that enable participants in a study to disclose information that cannot be observed in the lab. While this itself is prone to errors due to the penchant of individuals to forget, purposefully omit, confabulate, or entirely fabricate it is likely the only way to gather information at all - and likely no more inaccurate than laboratory experiments given the issues previously noted.

The change ion methodology also corresponds to a shift in research interest: how humor is used in everyday life to nurture interpersonal relationships, cope with stress, and promote mental and physical health.

The fact that an individual laughs at a joke or cartoon presented in a laboratory setting does not mean he appreciates humor in the course of his everyday life. However, one study (Bahad 1974) compared the results of humor appreciation tests to ratings of a participant's tendency to appreciate, produce, or reproduce humor in their daily lives and found there to be a "significant" but not flawless correlation between the degree to which a person appreciates and uses humor as reflected by appreciation tests, self-evaluation, and peer evaluation.

This suggests that self-reporting measures may be a valid approach to assessing the use o humor in everyday life. While it is suspected that there will be some skew due to the nature of the methodology, the results may be sufficiently accurate to draw general observations.

Sveback's Sense of Humor Questionnaire

The author identifies Sven Sveback as the individual who first broke with the convention of laboratory testing of humor appreciation to experiment with self-reporting on the topic of humor. He is also noted fro considering the social context of humor as being different to the reaction of performance humor (jokes, cartoons, and other actions intended to provoke laughter without context) and considered the ability to produce humor to be separate from the ability to appreciate it.

He also identified three specific dimensions by which humor could be considered:

His questionnaires contained questions that explored each of these, and found that there was no necessary correation. A person might be able to perceive humor but not particularly like it, or they may enjoy humor themselves but have no wish to share it with others.

Situational Humor Response Questionnaire

The author refers to an instrument of his own devising for exploring the stress-mitigating property of humor. This questionnaire presents the responded with a number of scenarios (such as a friend carelessly spilling a glass of water on them in a restaurant) and asking how they would be inclined to respond. Another of his own inventions is the three-day diary in which participants are asked to report situations in which they found humor or amusement.

Some findings of his questionnaire:

The author concedes that his study has a limited demographic, as participants were university students, so it is valid to suggest that there may be different results ere the questionnaire administered to different groups.

Coping Humor Scale

Another instrument the author has devised is a seven-question quiz that evaluates the use of humor as a coping mechanism. Rather than asking "how would you react" this version of the quiz asks participants to reflect on their past behavior, asking questions about how useful they have found humor to be in the past as a balm for their negative emotions.

In addition, this experiment asks peers to rate an individual's behavior - how often they have been witnessed to employ humor in stressful situations, and there was found to be sufficient correlation between peer evaluation and self reporting for the latter to be considered as reliable as the former.

Coping humor is also found to be correlated to the mental health and emotional stability of individuals - though he admits that it is shows "relatively weak internal consistency" based on its use thus far.

Humor Styles Questionnaire

Considering that humor is used for a variety of purposes, some of which are beneficial and others somewhat detrimental, it becomes clear that it cannot be considered out of context. But it also has been observed that individual use of humor seems to fall into habitual patterns, as a tool or method that individuals tend to use in a certain way.

Based on this observation the author has devised a "honor styles" questionnaire, the intent of which is to analyze the frequency and manner in which individuals tend to use humor in their daily lives, though particularly geared to consider known applications of humor toward goals such as relationship maintenance and coping with stress.

In that sense, the questionnaire probes four basic styles based on two basic parameters:

The author concedes that this questionnaire, like any form of self-reporting, can at best reflect the way in which people consciously use humor - whether they are being strategic or candid when doing so is a separate matter, and depends on the respondent.

Insofar as posturing is concerned, the author offers that self-ratings have had a high enough degree of correlation to peer ratings that the bias is minimal. There is also correlation between two established tests (the multidimensional sense of humor scale and the coping humor scale) and the author's instrument.

Moderate correlations have been found between affilliative and self-deprecating forms, as well as between aggressive and self-enhancing. Though they are independent it seems intuitive that an aggressive person would also be self-promoting and an amiable person would be self-deprecating.

There is also strong correlation between the author's test and measures of personality. For example, aggressive humor is positively correlated to hostility and aggression and negatively correlated with relationship satisfaction. Such findings are supportive of the theory that humor styles are reflective of personality traits and various aspects of psychological well-being.

State-Trait Cheerfulness Inventory

When we state that a person has a good sense of humor, it is often implied or inferred that individual tends to maintain a cheerful mood and a playful attitude much of the time, even in situations where others may become dour and surly. In this way, their sense of humor is reflective not only of behavioral tendencies but their general attitude or temperament.

In this view the individual differences in humor correlate to mood: whether a person is cheerful and in a good mood most of the time corresponds to whether they are typically open to appreciating or producing humor.

The author pauses to describe the difference between states (moods) and traits (personality): when a person is habitually cheerful, this represents a trait because it is a part of their normal personality. When a normally dour and serious person becomes temporarily cheerful and playful, this is a mood as they can be expected to return to their normal state afterward. Likewise, a cheerful and non-serious person may find themselves in a "bad mood" at times in which they are dour and serious.

A test called the state-trait cheerfulness inventory (Ruch 1996) investigates the degree to which an individual's cheerfulness is a constant trait of their personality as opposed to being a temporary state of mind. Those who are cheerful as a personality trait are more likely to exhibit positive emotions and to have enhanced feelings of happiness and mirth. Those who are only temporarily cheerful demonstrate these qualities to a lesser degree, even when they are in a cheerful mood. So in a general sense, people who have cheerfulness as a trait are not only amused by humor more often, but feel a deeper and more satisfying sense of mirth on those occasions.

In summary, people who are regarded as having a good sense of humor are also those who are habitually cheerful, and while those who are not ordinarily cheerful may appreciate humor when the mood takes them, they appreciate it less.

There is also some correlation to the humor styles that are apparent, as cheerful individuals use humor in a playful and non-aggressive way whereas people who are less cheerful may still be inclined to use humor in an aggressive and domineering way, though it's arguable whether the latter behavior is a genuine expression of mirth.

Sense of Humor as an Ability

Some regard humor as being similar to creative ability. That is, the ability to tell a joke or conceive a funny story is like the ability to paint or to draw. It is reckoned that some people are naturally gifted in this talent and are able to keep others amused without effort, whereas others have to work at it and be deliberate in delivery.

One set of tests (Feingold 1982) explores the aptitude for humor, asking people to respond to fill-in-the-blank questions to complete well known jokes. Scores on this test were highly correlated to measures of intelligence - and it was also found that intelligent people are avid consumers of performance comedy.

A later test examined not only the memory for humor, but "humor cognition" - the ability to explain why a joke "works" as well as the ability to complete a sentence in a humorous rather than mundane way (when prompted to do so). The latter part of the test correlated with known measures of creativity.

It was reasoned that a person's ability to appreciate and produce humor was linked to intelligence, creativity, language skills, and the ability to perceive humor.

Other humor tests have been used to examine individual differences in the ability to create or produce humor, though the author concedes these are not standardized or validated. One experimenter (Turner 1980) examined the connection between humor and social monitoring, the latter being the ability to "read" the emotions of other people in social situations. This test asked participants to make up a caption for a cartoon, or to tell a humorous story given a box of random props.

The individuals who rated higher on monitoring produced responses rated to be significantly more clever. This suggests the social aspect of humor, in that those who are more observant of the emotions of others are more adept in knowing what others might find humorous.

A few studies are described that test an individuals ability to produce humor against other measures of creativity, and found that there was a strong correlation, but that this was not exclusive: a creative person tended to be better and being funny, but not all creative people are funny nor are all funny people creative.

Styles of Humorous Conduct

When we say that someone has a good sense of humor, what we mean is that we have observed them engaging in a variety of behaviors that we find to be humorous. We can also often identify the characteristics of their style of humor - whether they are silly, irreverent, sarcastic, etc.

In that way, a person's sense of humor is akin to the various labels we attach to a person: they area good conversationalist, kind and caring, and have a good sense of humor.

One assessment (Craik 1998) developed a list of descriptive statements that are used to describe everyday humorous conduct, and used them in an exercise in which people were asked to describe a hypothetical person who had a good sense of humor. Traits such as good-natured wittiness, a cheerful disposition, and skillful use of language were commonly chosen. The qualities of aggressiveness, inappropriateness, and verbal clumsiness were least frequently chosen.

In a separate experiment, subjects were asked to identify the qualities they associated to a number of famous comedians. There was some consistency in the qualities associated with individual comedians, and some comedians were given very similar profiles. Then, these participants were asked to assess their own humor styles.

Through these experiments, five bipolar factors were noticed by researchers:

It was suggested that these five components could be used as scales to identify the core characteristics of a person's style of humor.

While this approach has shown some promise for classifying humor styles and correlating them to personality traits, research using this method has been "quite limited thus far" and the stability and reliability of the studies remains unproven. However, given that the perception of humor is derived from culture and fashion, it is likely that the sense of humor styles will fluctuate over time.

How Many Different Senses of Humor Exist?

Most people consider sense of humor to be a unitary construct, although its meaning in popular usage tends to be subjective, vague, and ill-defined. It is the equivalent of stating "I find him to be an amusing person." Researchers have attempted to pin it down, but are perplexed by the variety of different trait dimensions, and an unknown number of components that relate to humor production ability.

While there is widespread desire for a universal definition of humor that could be broadly applied, the phenomenon has thus far been elusive. None of the existing methods for classifying humor are comprehensive (there are additional things people find to be funny that do not correlate to the factors these instruments measure).

The author consolidates notes on some of the various humor scales he has presented in various places within the book. (EN: it doesn't seem to offer any new information, just gathers the bits and pieces together, so I'm skipping the rest of the section.)

Personality of Professional Humorists

it is a commonly held belief that professional comedians are rather morose and depressed individuals, who have dealt with the pain in their lives by employing humor as a coping mechanism.

One researcher (Janus 1975) performed a battery of assessments on a number of professional comedians: considering their intelligence, education level, family history, and personality. Based on the data, it was considered that comedians seemed to have high intelligence, repressed anger, some level of paranoia, and depression. In addition, their early lives were characterized by isolation, anxiety, and feelings of depression - and many admitted to using humor to cope with adverse circumstances.

Another study (Fisher 1981) conducted a more well-controlled investigation into personality characteristics of professional comedians and comics (all public performers) as well as an age-matched comparison of professional actors. There was no significant difference in the measures of depression or overall psychological health. However, comics were more preoccupied with themes of good and evil, felt unworthiness and self-deprecation, and felt duty and responsibility more strongly than actors. They were also more inclined to describe their relationship with both parents in a negative manner.

Another study considered the personality traits of parents whose children identified as "class clowns" in school, which is a common experience among adult comedians. This found that the mothers of comic children were significantly less kind, sympathetic, close, and involved with their children and more selfish and controlling. The only common trait among the fathers of comic children is greater passivity.

Combining the two studies, the researchers theorized that many professional comedians develop their humor skills in early childhood as a means of entertaining others, gaining approval, avoiding consternation, and otherwise ameliorating the negative aspects of an unpleasant childhood situation. These same traits carried forward into their adult lives, as a basis for their relationships with other individuals.

So while research is contrary to the popular conception that comedians are depressed or otherwise psychologically disturbed it does support the notion that humor developed in these individuals as a defense or coping mechanism for dealing with adversity early in life and, to the degree they were successful in doing so, reinforced these patterns of behavior.