A new study shows an increase in humorous creativity when individuals are primed with thoughts of death

July 2, 2013

Humor 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 humor. In human psychology, awareness of the impermanence of life is just as prevalent as humor. 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 bolstering.

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. Appearing in the journal HUMOR, it documents research on whether the activation of thoughts concerning death influences one's ability to creatively generate humor. As humor is useful on a fundamental level for a variety of purposes, including psychological defense against anxiety, the authors hypothesized that the activation of thoughts concerning death could facilitate the production of humor.

For their study, Long and Greenwood subdivided 117 students into four . 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.

Based on this experiment, the researchers conclude that humor helps the individual to tolerate latent anxiety that may otherwise be destabilizing. In this connection, they point to previous studies indicating that humor is an integral component of resilience.

In light of the finding that the activation of conscious thoughts concerning impaired the creative generation of humor, Long and Greenwood highlight the need for additional research, not only to explore the effectiveness of as a coping mechanism under various circumstances, but also to identify its emotional, cognitive, and/or social benefits under conditions of adversity.

More information: www.degruyter.com/view/j/humr.ahead-of-print/humor-2013-0012/humor-2013-0012.xml?format=INT

Related Stories

Is gallows humor in medicine wrong?

September 26, 2011

Doctors and other medical professionals occasionally joke about their patients' problems. Some of these jokes are clearly wrong, but some joking between medical professionals is not only ethical, it can actually be beneficial, ...

Men win humor test (by a hair)

October 19, 2011

Men are funnier than women, but only just barely and mostly to other men. So says a psychology study from the University of California, San Diego Division of Social Sciences.

Recommended for you

How language gives your brain a break

August 3, 2015

Here's a quick task: Take a look at the sentences below and decide which is the most effective. (1) "John threw out the old trash sitting in the kitchen." (2) "John threw the old trash sitting in the kitchen out."

Neural efficiency hypothesis confirmed

July 27, 2015

One of the big questions intelligence researchers grapple with is just how differences in intelligence are reflected in the human brain. Researchers at ETH Zurich have succeeded in studying further details relating to suspected ...

How does color blindness affect color preferences?

July 21, 2015

(Medical Xpress)—Dichromacy is a color vision defect in which one of the three types of cone photoreceptors is missing. The condition is hereditary and sex-linked, mostly affecting males. Although researchers have explored ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.