Humour is an intrinsic part of human experience. It plays a
role in every aspect of human existence, from day-to-day conversation to
television shows. Yet little research has been conducted to date on the
psychological function of humour. In human psychology, awareness of the
impermanence of life is just as prevalent as humour.
According to the Terror Management Theory, knowledge of
one's own impermanence creates potentially disruptive existential anxiety,
which the individual brings under control with two coping mechanisms, or
anxiety buffers: rigid adherence to dominant cultural values, and self-esteem
A new article by Christopher R. Long of Ouachita Baptist
University and Dara Greenwood of Vassar College is titled Joking in the Face of Death: A
Terror Management Approach to Humor Production.
Why humour helps
Appearing in the journal HUMOR,
it documents research on whether the activation of thoughts concerning death
influences one's ability to creatively generate humour. As humour is useful on
a fundamental level for a variety of purposes, including psychological defence
against anxiety, the authors hypothesized that the activation of thoughts
concerning death could facilitate the production of humour.
For their study, Long and Greenwood subdivided 117 students
into four experimental groups. These groups were confronted with the topics of
pain and death while completing various tasks. Two of the test groups were
exposed unconsciously to words flashed for 33 milliseconds on a computer while
they completed tasks – the first to the word "pain," the second to
the word "death".
The remaining two groups were prompted in a writing task to
express emotions concerning either their own death or a painful visit to the
dentist. Afterward, all four groups were instructed to supply a caption to a
cartoon from The New Yorker.
These cartoon captions were presented to an independent jury
who knew nothing about the experiment. The captions written by individuals who
were subconsciously primed with the word death were clearly voted as funnier by
the jury. By contrast, the exact opposite result was obtained for the students
who consciously wrote about death: their captions were seen as less humorous.
Humour and anxiety
Based on this experiment, the researchers conclude that humour
helps the individual to tolerate latent anxiety that may otherwise be destabilising.
In this connection, they point to previous studies indicating that humour is an
integral component of resilience.
In light of the finding that the activation of conscious
thoughts concerning death impaired the creative generation of humour, Long and
Greenwood highlight the need for additional research, not only to explore the
effectiveness of humour as a coping mechanism under various circumstances, but
also to identify its emotional, cognitive, and/or social benefits under
conditions of adversity.