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Psychometric Approach and Discourse Analysis in Psychology of Laughter

Introduction

While psychology is interested in how laughter affects people’s well-being, it is not the only topic of interest in the field. An issue of comparable or even greater importance is how people cause each other to laugh in the first place. Thus, humor is a natural research topic for the psychology of laughter – both as a way to induce particular psychological reactions in people and as a matter of interest in itself. There are different approaches to the psychological study of humor as well.

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While some scholars focus on the classification and measurement of humor, others explore how they serve to develop and reinforce identities, whether through creating shared meanings or stereotyping other groups. While these two methods address different issues and have clear limitations, they still share several common presumptions. In particular, the psychometric approach and discourse analysis agree that humor is a psychological mechanism that serves to enhance individuals or groups – sometimes at the expense of other actors.

Psychometric Approach

Humour and laughter have been a topic of interest for psychologists all over the world for decades. This interest only became more significant as the research gradually revealed that a sense of humor – or, at the very least, some of its aspects – was conducive to greater well-being. This link between humor and “various aspects of psychosocial and physical health and well-being” has been a noteworthy field of interest in psychology ever since the 1980s (Martin et al., 2003, p. 49).

Scholars used self-reporting scales to access the study subjects’ sense of humor and explore its correlations to physiological health. However, they have soon established that treating humor holistically and as a thing in itself often yielded mixed results. Several studies have confirmed that the measurements of humor in general only provided a weak correlation with mental health constructs (Martin et al., 2003). One of the possible explanations of this weal correlation was that the measurements did not address the subject adequately – or, more precisely, that the different types of humor could have different and even opposite impacts.

This assumption required developing classifications of the types of humor that could account better for the mixed results received in the field studies insofar and serve as a guide for the new ones. A notable development in this respect is the model created by Martin et al. (2003) that uses two criteria to distinguish four different types of humor. The first criterion offered by the authors is whether humor in question serves to enhance oneself – that is, the speaker of the joke – or one’s connection with the others – the audience (Martin et al., 2003).

The second criterion is the intention behind the use of humor: whether the joke is aggressive and potentially detrimental or injurious or whether it is “tolerant and accepting of both self and others” (Martin et al., 2003, p. 52). Based on these criteria, the authors identify four types of humor. These are: self-enhancing and benign, affiliative or benign and group-enhancing, aggressive of self-enhancing and injurious, and self-defeating, which seeks to enhance group by making disparaging remarks about oneself. While all these types are ultimately meant to make the audience laugh, their psychological purpose and psychosocial impacts differ.

Evidence illustrates the practical applicability of this scheme and the hypothesis that lies at its core. In particular, Samson and Gross (2012) studied the effectiveness of humor as a coping strategy depending on the type of humor used. The authors identify that they embrace the idea of the heterogeneity of humor and pay special attention to the difference between its “good-natured” and “mean-spirited” varieties (Samson & Gross, 2012, p. 377). It is easy to note that these categories correspond to the distinction between benign and injurious humor elaborated by Martin et al. (2003).

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The authors used measures self-reported perception of the images designed to invoke negative emotions and the effectiveness of both good-natured and mean-spirited humor in lowering the negative response. Their results confirm that, while both types reduce the negative emotional reaction, benign humor proves to be more efficient in this respect (Samson & Gross, 2012). Hence, the study confirms the hypothesis that different types of humor leave different impacts on people’s emotional perception of the surrounding reality and, by extension, psychological well-being. It also demonstrates the practical applicability of the model described above.

Yet while this classification is undoubtedly useful as a guide for designing and conducting research as well as evaluating the results, one should be aware of its limitations and potential pitfalls. An article by Evans and Steptoe-Warren (2015) points to one of such pitfalls and discusses the better ways to employ the four-part scheme offered by Martin et al. (2003). While conducting a study of how managerial styles of humor affect stress levels, creativity, communication, leader power, and job satisfaction, the authors arrived at a noteworthy conclusion.

They found the highest level of stress not among those participants, whose managers used aggressive humor most frequently, but among those whose managers rarely used other types (Evans & Steptoe-Warren, 2015). Thus, “the frequency of use of an individual humor type” is secondary to the overall composition of the four types of humor as practiced by a person (Evans & Steptoe-Warren, 2015, p. 450). Consequently, the problem seems to lie not so much in the aggressive humor itself, but in the lack of other humor types. A researcher should keep this in mind and avoid assessing different humor types in isolation.

Another critical limitation to the psychometric approach lies at its very core: while it, as follows from the name, aims to measure different kinds of humor, the measurement procedure itself is inherently flawed. The primary tool for assessing the sense of humor and its effects on people’s psychological well-being is self-report humor scales and questionnaires. Even though Martin et al. (2003) offer a more detailed classification of humor than the ones found in the previous studies, their method still leaves the researcher at the mercy of the participants’ subjectivity.

For example, Martin et al. (2003) interpret a high score in “If I am feeling depressed, I can usually cheer myself up with humor” as an indication of self-enhancing humor (p. 58). However, a person prone to using aggressive humor may just as well lift his or her spirits by making injurious jokes about others. Considering this problem, the subjective interpretation of different types of humor by the research participants remains a limitation to the practical application of the psychometric approach, and the researcher should be aware of it.

Discourse Analysis

Another way to approach the psychological study of laughter is by using discourse analysis to establish how humor may serve to strengthen group identities. The underlying premise of this particular approach is that the use of humor is a dynamic process that creates a community of practice among the members of a group that practices it. As Holmes and Marra (2002) note, “becoming a member of a community of practice actively interacts with the process of gaining control of the discourse of that community of practice” (p. 1685). In other words, shared meanings and practices are essential for shaping and supporting the group identity, and any prospective member of a given group is required to master and internalize these practices.

This assumption is in line with Evans and Steptoe-Warren’s (2015) findings that “how multiple humor types are perceived” in a community is a crucial factor defining the impact of humor (p. 8). The patterns of using and appreciating humor within a given group are crucial for determining the psychological effect of said humor on the group members and also constitute an essential component of the group identity.

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A study by Holmes and Marra (2002) investigates how humor operates in the workplace and how it influences the group identity of the employees. They establish distinct differences depending on the social contexts: while some workplaces, such as factories, rely on humor, others, such as the meeting of a commercial team, use the aggressive variety (Holmes & Marra, 2002). The authors interpret these differences as a manifestation of intergroup distinctiveness that serves to promote the values shared in a workplace, be that mutual support in a factory or fierce competitiveness in a commercial team.

As a result, the immediate goal of achieving laughter becomes concomitant to the more overreaching aim of constructing and supporting the shared identity and reinforcing the group values. Understanding “how humor is used in the verbal practices of the community” and applying this knowledge in a workplace context serves as a confirmation of mastering the group’s discourse (Holmes & Marra, 2002, p. 1685). Hence, discourse analysis demonstrates how humor serves yet another psychological purpose by creating a sense of belonging and acceptance through constructing and supporting group identities.

Holmes and Marra’s (2002) study explores how shared practices of joking may strengthen the ties within the group, but there is yet another way of using humor to enhance group identity. This way is targeting other groups is often injurious jokes to both reinforce the sense of group distinctiveness and pose the group members as superior to the outsiders. Billig’s (2001) research on racist jokes published on the Ku Klux Klan-affiliated websites offers several examples of such use of humor.

These jokes express stereotyped negative assumptions about black people and often take them to the extreme, depicting African Americans in a parasitic and animal-like fashion (Billig, 2001). Interpreting the joke as funny requires a person to implicitly recognize these stereotypes and, by doing so, accept the shared prejudice that unites anti-black racist groups (Billig, 2001). In this respect, it resembles self-defeating humor, as its purpose is to strengthen the group, but, instead of joking about oneself, the speaker selects other groups as targets.

It is also important to note that the jokes designed to strengthen group identity through disparaging remarks about and negative stereotyping of outsiders are often posed as humor for humor’s sake. This coexistence of the immediate psychological goal of causing laughter and that implicit purpose of enhancing the sense of distinctiveness and superiority within the group makes racist jokes similar to the workplace humor discussed above.

However, an open acknowledgment of the joke being a vehicle of hatred intended to unite the group through its perceived superiority is rather rare. In most cases, the jokers refuse to recognize that expressing hatred pleases them and insist that they enjoy the “cleverness” of the joke rather than its prejudicial and hateful message (Billig, 2001, p. 268). Thus, while the twofold purpose of the joke as a bringer of enjoyment and the tool for strengthening group identity remains the same, the willingness to admit this duality depends on the type of humor. While there are no qualms about acknowledging the role of good-natured humor to bolster group identity, injurious humor tends to mask its implicit purpose of uniting the group through hatred.

Conclusion

As one can see, the psychometric approach and discourse analysis focus on different aspects of the psychology of laughter but share some common premises. Attempts to measure the psychological effects of different jokes led to the development of more nuanced classifications of humor that account for the intent of the joke and whether it strengthens the speaker of the group. Experimental studies confirm that different types of humor have varying impacts on psychosocial well-being. However, a tendency to view these types in isolation as well as reliance on self-assessments may undermine the efficiency of this approach.

Discourse analysis demonstrates how accepted patterns of joking – including aggressive and injurious humor – may serve to reinforce group identity, thus assuming an additional purpose aside from the immediate goal of causing laughter. Therefore, both approaches share a common assumption that humor as a psychological mechanism serves to enhance individuals or groups, sometimes at the expense of others.

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References

Billig. M. (2001). Humour and hatred: The racist jokes of the Ku Klux Klan. Discourse & Society, 12(3), 267-289.

Evans, T. R., & Steptoe-Warren, G. (2015). Humor style clusters: Exploring managerial humor. International Journal of Business Communication, 55(4), 443–454.

Holmes, J., & Marra, M. (2002). Having a laugh at work: How humour contributes to workplace culture. Journal of Pragmatics, 34, 1683–1710.

Martin, R. A., Puhlik-Doris, P., Larsen, G., Gray, J., & Weir, K. (2003). Individual differences in uses of humor and their relation to psychological well-being: Development of the Humor Styles Questionnaire. Journal of Research in Personality, 37, 48-75.

Samson, A. C., & Gross, J. J. (2012). Humour as emotion regulation: The differential consequences of negative versus positive humour. Cognition & Emotion, 26(2), 375-384.

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StudyCorgi. (2022, January 11). Psychometric Approach and Discourse Analysis in Psychology of Laughter. Retrieved from https://studycorgi.com/psychometric-approach-and-discourse-analysis-in-psychology-of-laughter/

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"Psychometric Approach and Discourse Analysis in Psychology of Laughter." StudyCorgi, 11 Jan. 2022, studycorgi.com/psychometric-approach-and-discourse-analysis-in-psychology-of-laughter/.

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