Let’s say you’re an utterly humourless individual with a zeal for self-improvement. Not to worry! A quick Google search for “how to have a sense of humour” leads you to a wikiHow page that helpfully lays out how to do exactly that in just six steps. When is a good time to laugh? As someone new to laughter, will I find some things funnier than other things? Should I “take in a funny movie or YouTube clip on occasion”? All questions are answered. “Having a sense of humour is one of the greatest assets a person can have,” the guide asserts. “If you don’t have a sense of humour, you have a lot to learn!”
Written like an instruction manual for being a functional human, the guide is as bizarre and useless as it sounds, with suggestions like “making bad puns such as those in Airplane! (‘I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley’) can be used anywhere.” What’s interesting is how quickly the how-to guide bumps into serious complications in defining what we usually assume is a basic, easily understood concept.
“Know the difference between being funny and having a sense of humour,” the guide states. It’s a strangely slippery distinction. While generally conflated, the ability to make jokes and the ability to enjoy jokes aren’t the same thing. In a number of recent studies, researchers have tried to figure out the relationship between joke telling and joke appreciating. What exactly does it mean to have “a sense of humour”?
In one study, published in April in the Journal of Research in Personality, 159 people were given two New Yorker cartoons, one with a caption and one blank. They rated the captioned cartoon’s funniness on a scale of 1-7, then tried to caption the other cartoon, in what was basically a scientific version of the New Yorker back page contest. The captions were then judged by four independent judges on two measures: general coherence, to see if participants were even able to generate something that could credibly be called a joke, and the caption’s actual funniness.
The researchers found that humour appreciation was in fact negatively correlated with humour production. The people who laughed the most wrote the worst jokes, while those least amused by the cartoons wrote the best captions (people, presumably, like this guy). Here, the idea that someone with a “good sense of humour” is someone who both laughs at your jokes and makes their own gets complicated.
Another study, recently published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, attempts to unpack various types of funniness and how they’re perceived. Studies have long shown that “a good sense of humour” consistently ranks as one of the most important qualities in a romantic partner, with people’s happiness in a relationship linked to how funny they find their spouse, and men more likely to get a woman’s phone number when they were funny with their friends. But “a sense of humour,” as an umbrella term, encapsulates any number of different joking styles, not all of which seem obviously desirable.
The researchers used a formulation that divides humour into four broad categories. “Affiliative humour” is the kind of joking around that amuses people without insulting anyone, strengthening social bonds, while “Aggressive humour” is the teasing, jousting sort often used to subtly display your superiority. “Self-enhancing humour” is an attempt to use humour to make the best of a bad situation, while “self-defeating humour” is the self-deprecating, Woody Allen-ish joking that attempts to wring laughs out of the joke-teller’s own humiliations and shortcomings.
Participants received the “Humor Styles Questionnaire,” a personality test that attempts to determine your style of humour by asking you to rate how much you agree with statements such as: “Even when I’m by myself, I’m often amused by the absurdities of life,” or, “I will often get carried away in putting myself down if it makes my family or friends laugh.” In one study, 50 students used the HSQ to judge whether each action described showed someone with a good sense of humour or a bad one. They also rated how “socially desirable” each action was. Is the person who says that, “If I don’t like someone, I often use humour or teasing to put them down” a lovable clown, or just a jerk?
The results indicated that being aggressively humourous was actually social disadvantageous; quipping about your friend’s disastrous fashion makes you seem like an asshole. And self-deprecating humour, whatever its charms, generally made the joker look unattractive—belittle yourself too much and your audience starts to believe it. The results, the researchers argue, show that “a more nuanced view of humour is needed to appreciate its tactical uses and its multiple roles in social interactions.”
This isn’t the most earth-shattering conclusion; at times, both studies can feel as hopelessly literal and earnest as the wikiHow guide—written with the same joke-deflating seriousness and from the same man-from-Mars perspective. But, as they argue, if we’re consistently talking about the importance of “a sense of humour,” surely we should at least know what that means. These studies are a start, and don’t call me Shirley.
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