STANFORD (US) — Humor, particularly positive humor, can help us manage fear when we see something frightening or disturbing, new research shows.
Humor works by forcing a change of perspective and positive humor facilitates real reappraisal, while negative humor works by half measures, distancing the subject from the upsetting picture without creating a new mental scenario.
People were shown a series of images from the International Affective Picture System (IAPS)—a database of photographs that have been categorized by their emotional content. After viewing disturbing pictures, such as car accidents, corpses, aggressive animals, and dental exams, they were asked to rate the intensity of positive and negative emotions.
Taking the format a step further, subjects were asked to improvise jokes—either positive or negative—reinterpreting the photos before reporting their emotions. Researchers found that subjects who made any kind of quip benefited, reporting both increases in positive emotions and decreases in negative emotions. But positive humor had the biggest impact. The journal Cognition & Emotion reported the findings.
“If you are able to teach people to be more playful, to look at the absurdities of life as humorous, you see some increase in wellbeing,” says Andrea Samson, a postdoctoral student at Stanford University working with James Gross, professor of psychology.
There are multiple ways to reinterpret a single image, the most obvious being “serious” cognitive reappraisal—seeing a photo featuring a man bloodily disemboweling a fish at a seafood processing plant, for instance, and reinterpreting it as a celebration of safe, unionized labor.
But the picture can also be viewed through the lens of comedy, illustrated by two actual responses: either “positive,” non-hostile humor (“He always wanted to work with animals”)) or “negative,” aggressive, disparaging humor (“Ideal workplace for people with body odor”).
“It sounds difficult,” Samson says,”but most often, the participants did surprisingly well.”
The findings show how humor exerts its psychological effect by forcing a change of perspective. And, based on the greater efficacy of positive humor, the researchers suggest that positive humor facilitates real reappraisal, while negative humor works by half measures, distancing the subject from the upsetting picture without creating a new mental scenario.
In a second study, a head-to-head comparison of positive humor with typical, serious reappraisal was conducted by master’s degree student Alana Glassco with Samson and Gross. The result again found optimistic joking to be the more powerful emotional regulator.
By demonstrating that subjects who had been asked to use humor also exhibited an increase in verbal fluency after the trial, research may have bolstered the theory that humor changes cognitive processing.
The increase in fluency, explains Glassco, suggests “the use of humorous reappraisal led individuals to experience higher levels of creativity and cognitive flexibility.”
Seriousness and negative jokes are by no means useless. There are many situations where a sober cast is more appropriate—for example studies of hostile joking in disempowered groups such as POWs show dramatic benefits, in that they are give a sense of control and agency.
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