The Theology of Everyday Life: The Theology of Humor, Part 1, "Humor as Power"

Well, after a few weeks of pretty much straight theology, let's get back to what I do best: The interface of psychology with theology.

On Sunday, I taught the Sojourners adult bible class at the Highland Church of Christ. (I'm one of four regular Sojourner teachers.) It was a class about gentleness and I started the class off with the psychology of humor. What does humor have to do with gentleness? We'll get there in a minute.

Anyway, during and after class there was a lot of discussion about the the theology of humor. So much so that I thought I would devote a series to the topic.

I started the class of with a discussion of the "mystery of funny." That is, we know what we think is funny but when we are asked for specifics it is very hard to say what exactly was funny. We can say it was "witty" or "absurd" but that doesn't get us very far. In the end, trying to describe why something is funny is like trying to describe what an apple tastes like. Apples, well, they taste like apples. And funny things are, well, funny.

But psychologists have made some headway on humor and I'd like to talk today about two facets of humor, the two facets of humor I spoke about in class on Sunday.

First, humor is generally social. For example, potatoes, on their own, don't crack people up. But if you put eyes on a potato, and a nose and a cute hat, well, you got yourself a Mr. Potato Head. That is, non-human things (e.g., plants, animals, rocks) are only funny insofar as they remind us of ourselves. Think about a Disney animated movie (e.g., Cars, Finding Nemo) and you see the dynamic in action. In short, we find OURSELVES funny.

Given that humor is generally social, a second facet of humor can now be considered. Aristotle was one of the first to note that one of the social uses of humor was to communicate power and status.

Much of humor is about power: Sarcasm, teasing, satire, ridicule. We see this "laughing at people" institutionalized in the "clown," "jester," or "fool." To demean someone we call them a "fool" or say they are a "joke."

Interesting experimental evidence highlights the role of power in humor. Research in boardrooms have discovered what is called "downward humor." In boardrooms, high status persons typically make the jokes and low status persons laugh at the jokes. In generally,

Laugh producer = High status
Laugh consumer = Low status.

Thus, the "class clown" (or the "boardroom clown") is typically making a subversive power move. By getting others to laugh (being a laugh producer) signals High Status in the presence of the teacher or boss, the person supposed to be in charge. In short, humor production in the presence of a superior can undercut their power. (BTW, on a related note, the equation of "Laugh consumer = Low status" also explains why you cannot be giggly and be taken seriously in the business world.)

Further evidence of this is found in the work of Robert Provine (see his excellent book Laugher: A Scientific Investigation), who studied natural laugh episodes between dyads (a speaker and an one person audience). When laughter occurs in dyads, who generally laughs the most? Speakers or audiences? You would think it would be the audience. That laugher occurs when someone says something "funny." In fact, speakers laugh more than audiences. That's interesting. Generally, speakers say something and then laugh at themselves. Audiences then join in with laughter. Why might this be? Well, recall the equations above: A laugher is low status. So, when speakers laugh they signal that they are low status. We interpret this as being friendly and non-dominant. Thus, intimacy can be achieved.

Provine also uncovered a final peice of evidence concerning the association of laughter and status. Provine found it in personal ads. Generally, women seek high status males. Thus, if being a laugh producer = high status, what do you think women look for in a man? You guessed it: A sense of humor, a man who can "make me laugh." And if you look at personal ads in your local paper you can replicate Provine's study: You'll see that women are much more likely to seek a sense of humor in a potential dating partner than men are.

And this now brings us back to gentleness. In the class I suggested that we are enmeshed in subtle forms of status-seeking. We might generally think we don't seek after status, but I asked the class to reflect on their humor usage. How do they use humor to tease, demean, or undercut authority figures? Do we use humor to hurt others and to signal our dominance?

It's an interesting question.

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5 thoughts on “The Theology of Everyday Life: The Theology of Humor, Part 1, "Humor as Power"”

  1. Dr. Beck: I'm really looking forward to following this series. You've started off nicely!

    Humor is definitely very important to me. It has always been a big part of who I am. I am a firm believer in humor and the positive effect that laughing can have on a person's mental state. As for the "laugh producer" typically laughing first, I agree. I'll be the first to admit I crack myself up! ;)

    I'm going to have to give this "status" business some thought, though. I don't know what I think about that theory. About the laugh producer and the laugh consumer being a status thing. Hmmm...

    I can see it in demeaning humor, because many times that type of humor is used to make one's self feel superior based on a feeling of insecurity. However, at the same time, I do not believe all humor is used to "tease, demean, or undercut" (nor do I think you were saying that it all is either).

    I have a quote I came up with back during my senior year in high school that I've carried in my wallet for years now. The quote says, "Anyone can make others laugh at someone else's expense, but those who can make you laugh without hurting anyone truly possess the gift of humor."

    I was tired of humor being based on teasing, demeaning, or undercutting, so I deemed to encourage myself to strive for a higher standard. I'm not saying I never crack a demeaning joke any longer, but I am reminded of this "standard" each time I see the quote and it helps me to strive for a different sense of humor in my everyday life.

    I'll give this "status" business some more thought as I anticipate your upcoming entries in this series!

  2. I too am looking forward to more in this series. While humour can be used to exercise a dominance or demean and in that way create a status differential, I also think that humour can be used to "give" someone who considers himself to be inferior a mechanism for seeing himself as having some status.

    Cartoons are their own form of humour, but one of the things I like to do instructionally is to use cartoons to underscore major points. This strategy has been particularly effective when teaching psychology, and in recent years I've used it when teaching statistics. Statistics is one of those "feared" classes at both undergraduate and graduate levels, and in addition to cartoons of various sorts, I usually start off the semester with making a statistics monster and then having my students growl and make faces to scare it off. In an odd sort of way, it is empowering.

    Somewhat off topic from your intent in exploring humour, but worth mentioning.

    Oh, and as a female, yes I do look for sense of humour -- preferably at a more sophisticated level than the typical 4th grader, as I'm not a fan of body function jokes.


  3. Whether we use "clean" humor or not, I do believe that we use humor in order to gain status. We want people to like us. In part, if I can get them to laugh they will like me or appreciate me. We want to feel accepted and humor is a way to do that socially speaking. Consiously, I don't think we think through this process, but unconciously we are using humor to get some type of satisfaction (e.g., power, acceptance) or else why would we keep using it over and over again. It's a positive reinforcer psychologically speaking.

  4. Interesting notion of humour as a signal of power.

    Yesterday, I was at a workshop where 14 of the 16 members were clergy. I was in the minority. I think the Clergy-Laity power divide might have been illustrated by the use of jokes.

    During a group project I suggested a joke to our group presenter (ie. the one who would report back to the whole group), he chose not to use it. Perhaps it wasn’t funny; perhaps he didn’t understand it; or perhaps it was the power differential you speak of.

    Interestingly, it was one of the most senior clergy there who was telling most of the jokes.

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