11: Humor in Psychology, Education, and the Workplace

With the past few decades there has been a growing interest in the potential application of humor in a variety of professional contexts, though most of the claims made in this respect are based on anecdotal evidence and a very limited amount of empirical research.

There is great enthusiasm on one hand, and great skepticism on the other, as to the ability of humor to enhance job performance and the general outcome of practical matters - and it requires some discipline to maintain an open mind about the possible benefits of humor while carefully avoiding unfounded enthusiasm for the notion.

Humor in Therapy and Counseling

Based on the notion that humor has potential benefits to mental health, therapists and counselors from a variety of theoretical perspectives have shown interest in its possible application to their work with patients.

Therapeutic humor is loosely defined as the intentional use of humor techniques by therapists to contribute to the self-understanding and behavior of patients. Such humor must be applied to contribute to, rather than detract from, the therapeutic issue.

In this sense, there are three approaches:

There is some research considering each of these approaches which identifies the potential benefits and risks. Each will be explored in greater detail.

While the author's focus will be psychotherapy and counseling, it is likely much of this information is relevant to related professions such as social work, nursing, physical therapy, and so on.

Humor-Based Therapies

A few schools of psychotherapy developed in the 1960s emphasized the importance of a healthy sense of humor as a goal of therapy, as they view humor as not only an important indicator of psychological health but also a means to maintain mental functioning.

Rational-emotive therapy, developed by Albert Ellis, maintained that psychological disturbance results from irrational beliefs, dysfunctional attitudes, and unrealistic standards. The goal of this therapy is to dispute these attitudes and convince the patient to be less demanding and idealistic, and used the notion of absurdity to dismiss rigid mental outlooks. This approach fosters what is normally categorized as self-defeating humor, encouraging patients to take things less seriously and to hold themselves in lower esteem.

In "provocative therapy" developed by Frank Farrelly, the analyst would use aggressive humor to belittle patients, based on much the same theory that their self-defeating patterns were the result of ridiculous beliefs and attitudes and that mockery was an effective method in convincing them to change their beliefs. Though this seems harsh, it is noted that the goal is to get the client to laugh along during at least part of the therapeutic encounter.

Walter O'Connell developed a "natural high therapy" whose goal was to address the negative "energies" resulting from unpleasant or frustrating life experiences, and humor can be instrumental in getting a patient to regard these experiences as unimportant as a method of coping with or dismissing the strong emotions attached to them.

The author takes a dim view of these and other treatments that use humor as a method of addressing valid psychological issues in patients, and expresses that there has not been any reliable research conducted to evaluate their effectiveness.

Humor as a Therapeutic Technique

Rather than relying on humor as a central method, some clinicians have developed specific humor-based techniques for treating clients with particular problems.

For example, some clinicians have leveraged humor as a method for treating phobias and other fear-related conditions, as part of a program of systematic desensitization. Therapists have also used muscle-relaxation techniques to condition a subject to react with less intensity at an anxiety-evoking stimulus, and a few clinicians report that humor has been effective in reducing fear in certain patients.

The most extensive such experiment (Ventis 2001) selected a group of forty undergraduate students with spider phobias and split the group in half, some receiving muscle-relaxation therapy, others receiving humor therapy, and others receiving no therapy. Both humor and relaxation groups showed "significant and equally large reductions" in self-reporting assessments compared to the control group, as well as increased feelings of self-efficacy. The outcome suggests that humor can be as effective (though not more effective) than standard relaxation techniques.

Paradoxical intention is another technique (Frankl 1960) used with patients with various problems (including obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, depression, and phobias). Patients are asked to exaggerate the severity if their feelings, symptoms, and responses to the point of absurdity, engaging them to develop the ability to laugh at their neurotic patterns and gain a feeling of detachment from them.

Later research (Newton 1990) suggested that paradoxical intention was more effective with clients who score lower on tests of humor, suggesting that the high-humor patients consider the treatment itself to be a joke or a self-contained "play" session with no relevance to their actual behavior, whereas low-humor patients take the therapy more seriously and attempt to cooperate with the therapist. It's likewise suggested that high-humor patients are more likely to use humor to cope with their ailments, so the therapy is merely more of the same whereas it constitutes a novel experience for the low-humor patient.

Similar techniques are reported (Witztum 1999) to have success in patients with severe and chronic schizophrenia. Using "sympathetic and lighthearted humor" in reaction to patients' delusions and hallucinations encouraged patients to recognize them and to refrain from taking them seriously. This resulted in "significant improvements" in the functioning of most of the patients involved in the group, and these gains were maintained after a period of three months.

Humor as a Therapist Skill

Another consideration of humor in therapy is to consider it to be a social skill or interpersonal competence that contributes to the therapists effectiveness, particularly in putting patients at ease about difficult or emotional subjects.

Naturally, this perspective does not promote all use of humor - as humor used to belittle patients or trivialize their problems is likely counterproductive to having an open dialogue, or if the humor leads patients to the sense they are being ignored or misunderstood. For that reason, some have suggested humor training to be included in the preparation of therapists - that they might use it effectively or at least avoid using it in a counterproductive manner.

In this view, humor is something that occurs spontaneously and naturally in the normal interaction between therapist and patient, just as in any social interaction. One recent study (Marci 2004) found that laughter occurs in psychotherapy sessions about once every three minutes, with patients laughing twice as often as therapists.

Five goals are defined for humor in therapy, and a bit more detail is provided about each.

Establish positive rapport

Humor can be used to put the patient at east and reduce tension, to humanize the therapist, and to create a sense of safety in the therapeutic space. Laughing together, at the same tings, creates feelings of friendliness and intimacy. Mildly self-deprecating humor can reduce the potential threatening situation that arises during the course of therapy.

For accurate understanding

Research indicates that patients introduce humor to a conversation more often than do therapists, and paying close attention to the instances in which a patient uses humor can be indicative of sensitivity to certain subjects.

Humor may also indicate progress, such as when a patient uses humor more frequently in regard to a topic that initially caused anxiety, indicating an increase in his sense of comfort and control.

Gain Insight and Consider Perspectives

The ambiguous nature of humor enables a person to explore or identify seemingly incompatible ideas or perspectives, which may be useful in exploring alternatives to rigid interpretations or reflexive defenses, to consider the assumptions that lead them to the perspective they take, and gain perspective into interpreting situations differently.

Humor in patients can be a sign of discovery, particularly in recognizing the absurdity of their own thought patterns and behaviors, as a precursor to embracing different modes of perception.

Reducing emotional distress

Humor can function as a regulator of emotion, particularly in reducing negative emotions such as depression, anxiety, and hostility, and increase the overall positive mood of the patient.

Modifying dysfunctional patterns

Humor can play a role in encouraging patients to consider and adopt more positive patterns of thought and behavior. Particularly in clients who have interpersonal problems, coaching them to use appropriate humor can enable them to develop more effective social skills or smooth over awkwardness in dealing with others.

Research on Humor in the Therapeutic Process

Empirical research into the use of humor in therapy is "quite limited" and not particularly supportive of the use of humor in the therapeutic process.

In summary, the perception of the effectiveness of humor in therapists is supported by weak evidence, provide the humor was positive and supportive in nature. However, it is also speculated that therapists who use humor in a positive manner may also be supportive in other ways, which means that humor is not sufficiently isolated as a factor in these studies.

Risks of Humor in Therapy

Although humor may potentially be beneficial for therapy, some clinicians have also voiced caution about the inherent risks. In general, humor pay be positive or negative - to encourage interaction or discourage it, to make light of a threat or belittle a person for being anxious, to approach difficult topics or to be dismissive of them.

The author mentions a "frequently cited article" that opines strong reservations about the use of humor in psychotherapy - even when it is well intended, patients may mistake a humorous statement for a serious one or misinterpret the intent of the humor. Or if recognized appropriately, it sets a precedent suggesting that patients should regard the therapy and their own conditions as trivial or unimportant. While few therapists have taken such an extreme view, most seem to agree that there is potential validity in the argument against humor in therapy.

The author then cites a few authors who take a positive view of humor in therapy, pointing out that even these proponents include statements that caution therapists to be careful in introducing humor to the situation.

One academic (Salmeh 1987) suggests a five-point rating scale for considering the appropriateness of humor in therapy:

  1. Destructive - Sarcastic and vindictive uses of humor elicit feelings of hurt and distrust in clients
  2. Harmful - Humor that is irrelevant or not attuned to a client's needs, which is not overtly harmful but merely a nuisance which can undermine faith in the therapy
  3. Minimally Helpful - Creates a sense of trust and affinity between therapist and patient, generally in the therapist's tolerant response to patient-initiated humor
  4. Helpful - Therapist-initiated humor that benefits the patient by facilitating their ability to explore and understand issues related to their condition
  5. Outstandingly Helpful - Well-targeted humor that enables patients to achieve breakthroughs in understanding their condition and expedites positive changes in outlook or behavior

Specific mention is made of "gelatophobia," or an extreme fear on the part of some patients of being mocked or not taken seriously, generally corresponding to neuroticism, introversion, and extremely low self-esteem. It is likely this parameter should be assessed, as patients with this condition area unlikely to understand humor or accept that any form of humor may be benign or positive.

Another specific topic of concern is patients who use humor as a method of trivializing their problems and avoiding dealing with difficulty, who regard therapy as "one big joke" and use humor to avoid active and serious participation in the therapeutic process. Any use of humor by a therapist in such situations merely enables and contributes to this perception.

Humor in Education

Although education was traditionally a serious and solemn undertaking, pedagogical trends in recent decades have shifted to promote a more relaxed learning environment and an emphasis on making the process of learning enjoyable to students. Consistent with this trend, teachers have been encouraged to introduce humor in the classroom, both as a stress-reducing diversion and a performance enhancement within the context of teaching.

In general, it has been proposed that humor in the classroom helps to reduce tension, stress, anxiety, and boredom to make the classroom less threatening to students, which in turn increases comprehension, retention, and application as well as inspiring creativity and divergent thinking.

Most of these enthusiastic endorsements are based entirely on anecdotal evidence and teachers' reports of their own classroom experience. Empirical research is quite limited and much of it is two or more decades old, though it does seem to address questions in a number of areas, which the author will explore in the subsections hereafter.

Descriptive Studies of Humor in the Classroom

Descriptive studies consider the manner and frequency with which educators use humor in the classroom. For example, analysis of tape recordings of university lectures contain an average of three instances of humor per fifty minutes of instruction (Bryant 1980) and similar rates of humor have been found in high school and elementary schools. It's also found that male instructors use humor more frequently than female ones, though the disparity has diminished over the past two decades.

A study in which college students were asked to record humorous remarks made by instructors (Gorham 1990) suggests the modes of humor:

A separate study (Neuliep) did not account for proportions, but developed a taxonomy of humor, containing the following categories:

While the greatest concern among pedants and administrators is humor that disparages and discourages students, these appear to be a small faction (10%-20%) of humor in the classroom, and it is mostly used to make for emphasis, to make information more memorable, or add some levity to the teaching environment.

Teachers' Use of Humor and the Classroom Environment

The classroom environment is effectively a social environment, although contrived to be a group with a specific purpose, and in which there are fundamentally two classes (teacher and student) who interact with one another. In that sense, humor may be used in a positive or negative way in supporting the functions and norms of the classroom environment. In effect, it may be used to make the function of the group more effective and more enjoyable.

In general, it is found that teachers who express humor in the classroom tend to be especially popular with students, and student surveys have determined that humor is typically rated as one of the most desirable characteristics of an effective teacher (multiple studies cited). Reviewing teacher evaluations, it is found that teachers who use more humor in the classroom are also rated higher on general student surveys designed to measure effectiveness, which have no specific mention of humor (Bryant 1980).

Other research indicates that some kinds of humor have a negative rather than positive impact: student surveys of how much they learned and their attitude toward the subject are higher for instructors who use anecdotal humor, but lower for those who use aggressive humor (Gorham 1990).

Another observation is that the use of humor is more influential in students' perception of male instructors than female ones, though this is likely reflective of cultural expectations rather than classroom performance.

The value of humor is considered to be closely related to the notion of immediacy - the degree to which an instructor seems accessible to his students and has a close personal relationship rather than seeming distant and aloof. Past studies have indicated that students who feel a more immediate connection to an instructor perform better academically and have a more positive impression (Andersen 1979).

It is therefore posited that the humor itself may not be a factor that creates a functional and enjoyable classroom experience - but instead may be one of many means of achieving immediacy, which in turn does the heavy lifting in terms of effectiveness.

Humor and Learning

It has been speculated that humor is an effective method to improve the students' ability to learn, retain, and apply the informational content of a class.

A few theories have emerged to explain the reason lectures accompanied by humor might be better remembered:

It has long been recognized that students, particularly young children, will give more attention to instructional material if it contains humor, particularly when the humor is delivered in recognizable patterns or frequent short bursts.

However, there is also evidence that humor has no effect on retention of material, in an experiment in which students were tasked to memorize serious and humorous speeches, and no difference in learning or memory were observed between the two (Gruner 1967)

A separate study (Davies 1980) did show an improvement in retention of lectures on science, history, and geography when random cartoons were displayed, both immediately after the presentation and after one month, but the differences were no longer apparent after nine months.

Another experiment (Ziv 1988) compared the performance of college students over the course of a 14-week semester, in two courses from the same instructor. One course delivered lectures without humor, whereas the other used three to four funny anecdotes, jokes, or cartoons related to the subject matter. The students who had attended the humorous lectures performed an average of 10% better on standardized tests. This experiment was repeated the following year and achieved the same results.

The author lists several more studies on humor on the effects of memory, which show consistently positive correlations between humor and memory in instances in which the humor was correlated to the content that the subject was asked to remember. However it was also noted that participants in the humor group had better recall of information associated to humor, but worse recall of information that was not associated to humor in comparison to control groups.

Humor in Textbooks

Another question is whether humor in textbooks, rather than lectures, makes the content more accessible to students and improve their learning. It's noted that many high school and college textbooks already contain a fair amount of humor in the form of anecdotes, illustrations, and "filler" cartoons, even before the effectiveness was studied.

One study (Bryant 1981) provide students in different classes with different versions of a textbook - one containing humor, and another from which humor had been edited out. No differences were found in learning, as assessed by standardized tests, but the students who received humorous texts expressed a more positive opinion about the book and the course itself.

Another study (Kelin 1982) asked students to study and rate a sample chapter, allegedly to be included in a psychology textbook. The humor correlated to students finding the text enjoyable, but no correlation was found to indications of whether the book was considered interesting, credible, or persuasive, nor to whether the students felt interested in reading more about the topic.

Humor in Tests and Exams

Another consideration for humor in education is its use in tests and examinations, based on the theory that humor could help reduce anxiety in the test situation and improve performance.

The author lists a number of experiments in which multiple-choice tests were modified to phrase questions in a humorous manner or include at least one silly option in a multiple-choice scenario. In all, these studies provided no consistent evidenced that humor had any effect, positive or negative.

A few follow-up studies have attempted to salvage some evidence for the thesis, and did show that humor had an effect on students who were more anxious at the beginning of the test as well as those who indicated they found the humor to be funny. However, since the introduction of humor helps some students but not others, it might be suggested that the result is to bias the test in favor of certain students.

Another study set aside academic performance to consider the perception of the test, which found that students regarded tests that contained humor as being more enjoyable, fair, and helpful than tests containing no humor.


While pedants discourage the use of aggressive humor, which ridicules students, it is observed that teachers use ridicule, sarcasm, and teasing of students quite regularly (Bryant 1989) as a method of addressing undesirable behavior such as inattentiveness, tardiness, disruptive behavior, and so on. Teasing serves to discourage the offender and set an example for the rest of the class, and research evidence supports that these techniques are effective as behavioral deterrents.

Other evidence suggests that aggressive humor can have a detrimental effect, making students more inhibited, conformist, and fearful of failure (Janes 2000). It's also observed that instructors who use aggressive humor receive lower ratings by students and may diminish interest in academics (Gorham 1990).

It's also suggested that the use of humor can be confusing to students who do not understand it. Exaggeration, understatement, distortion, and irony used in the course of teaching may be taken as literal by students who are too young or mentally unsophisticated to understand the humorous intent (Bryant 1989).

Humor in the Workplace

Work is generally considered to be the very antithesis of play - where people tend to "serious business" and anyone who seems to be enjoying themselves is wasting time for which they are being paid to attend to unpleasant matters.

However, the notion of employee satisfaction comes in and out of fashion, and when it is in fashion employers speak to the importance of a happier and less stressful work environment, encouraging social interaction among coworkers. There are claims that a more lighthearted environment promotes productivity and creative problem solving, which is in the financial interests of the firm.

Although research evidence for a link between worker happiness and productivity is controversial, there remains the assumption that the rapport, creativity, and teamwork resulting from better social relations among workers translates into a better bottom line for the company, and this is often promoted in trade journals and popular media. However, the author has found no empirical research that supports these claims.

Furthermore, very little psychological research of any kind has been conducted on the topic of humor in the workplace, thought observational studies have investigated humor as a component of staff interaction in various workplaces.

Social Functions

Humor serves a number of functions in interpersonal communication: it releases tension, increases conviviality, and enables people to approach delicate subjects in a gentle manner. In particular, humor enables people to test the waters in expressing a socially risky message.

Since office politics make work situations ambiguous and uncertain, it is not surprising that humor is "quite frequently" used in the office, For example, disagreeing with a statement or decision made by a superior or popular individual requires caution, and being able to use the "just joking" defense is highly useful in those situations.

AS to the incidence of humor in the office, research (Holmes 2002) that analyzed tape recordings of both blue- and white-collar workers in various organizations (commercial, nonprofit, and government) found humor to be in use every two to five minutes. It occurs about eight times as often in commercial organizations than nonprofit and government workplaces. This is also about 10 times the rate at which humor occurs among friends in social settings. This is much more frequent than was initially assumed.

Qualitative studies (Vinton 1989) indicate that the most common modes of humor are anecdotes, friendly teasing, and witty banter, and is particularly prevalent in introductory situations, in which a new employee is introduced to an office or people meet for the fist time, as well as when individuals of different status converse.

In a study of task-oriented management meetings (Consalvo 198) it was found that humor occurs often during transition points or phase changes (such as shifting from identifying a problem to determining a solution) in conversation, and typically conveys a mutually supportive attitude among group members.

However, humor is also used in a way to create divisions among people, as in many cases building solidarity within a group requires disparaging of those who are not members of the group, or who are involved in a conflict or power-struggle with the group. In all, about 40% of humor in organizational meetings can be characterized as subversive: critical of other groups, figures of authority, individuals who are not present, other organizations, or broader interests or social values (Holmes 2002).

It has also been found that humor is used to define the norms of an organization, whether by ridiculing the norms or ridiculing those who violate them. In particular, managers often use humor while enforcing norms, to mast the authoritarian nature of the message. There is also a significant amount of humor that reflects rivalry among business units and individuals, particularly when there is contention and a struggle for power (Dwyer 1991).

In a study of British factory workers (Collinson 1988) it was discovered that workers used humor to break the monotony of their work, create a sense of camaraderie, and vent frustration with management and white-collar staff.

Given the pressures and tensions of the workplace, humor can be functional in the "serious" environment of work to increase cohesiveness, facilitate communication, reinforce norms, and reduce general tensions. In general, this is a fitting counterbalance to the relatively fewer instances in which humor is used in a subversive manner.

The author finally notes that these studies were observational, and that there is likely a need for more controlled and empirical research into the conclusions that have been suggested.

Humor and Organizational Culture

The concept of "culture" in an organization reflects the values, norms, and behavior patterns reflected in the way in which individuals interact in the context of their roles within the organization. Some suggest that the culture of an organization is an important factor in the degree to which it will be productive, competitive, and cohesive. Generally, it is believed that a culture of camaraderie among employees and an individual sense of accomplishment are important aspects of an organizational culture.

In a study of humor in work teams (Holmes 2002), humor was found to promote camaraderie among members of a team, but included hostility to outsiders, including individuals and other teams within the company. This is reflected in the frequency, style, and manner of humor used among members of the group.

On occasion, humor within a group becomes competitive, with members trying to outdo one another, which is more evident in organizations with a more individualistic and competitive culture. In other instances, this is interpreted as collaborative, with each

"joke" building upon the previous one and serving as support for the next.

In sum, it is not so much the frequency of humor as the nature of the humor (whether it is good-natured among members of a group, or serves cohesiveness by defining and enforcing norms) that is reflective of overall corporate culture - with the usual caveat that observational studies have provided weak support and that further research is necessary to make a more deliberate assessment.

Humor in Negotiation

Some have suggested that humor can be an effective tool for facilitating negotiations, particularly in instances of conflict where there is tension between parties. This is not humor in the form of making jukes, but conversational humor to get individuals to alter their perspectives and exercise less rigidity in dealing with one another.

AN analysis of telephone conversations between salesmen and clients (Mulkay 1993) observed that humor is often used to deal with difficulties arising in interactions where parties disagree but wish to maintain a relationship. For example, a buyer will often use humor when refusing to purchase a product, requesting concessions, disputing claims of quality, interrupting a sales pitch, or arguing about price. Salesmen often use humor to overcome a buyer's resistance, question the excuses for not buying, and to interrupt criticism.

Additional analytical studies of humor in negotiation come to the same conclusion: it is used by both parties when there is some manner of disagreement between them, and is generally initiated by the individual who is in a disadvantaged position or lower status.

In all, the author suggests that humor is a valuable skill for individuals involved in sensitive negotiations,

Humor in Leadership

Research on leadership suggests four broad characteristics are useful: giving and seeking information, making decisions, influencing people, and building relationships. It's suggested that humor is a valuable characteristic to leaders in that it supports each of these areas.

Some bits of research:

While each of these studies makes a correlation between humor and effectiveness, the author concedes that this sort of research is subject to the "halo" effect, in that people who like a leader for some reasons have a more positive opinion of them in general.