Can comedy help us cope? Artists, writers, and stand-up comics have used humor to shrug off anxiety for generations, especially fears about death. It’s why there are so many Old Jews Telling Jokes and why the Onion’s 9/11 issue was so effective. In the face of our own demise, we cannot help but laugh.
But until now, our psychological defense mechanisms, otherwise known as Terror Management Theory, have included punching up our self-esteem (telling ourselves we are strong, right, good) and adhering to cultural values (national or religious) for support.
For a recent study, published in the journal Humor, researchers asked subjects to think about death and pain, in conscious and unconscious ways. In the former scenario, subjects explicitly wrote about these topics. In the latter scenario, subjects were shown subliminal messages about each while performing unrelated tasks. Finally, individuals were asked to write captions for New Yorker cartoons, like this one.
Researchers pre-screened the cartoons to make sure they were free of references to violence, death and, fantastically, dentistry. Then an independent panel judged the captions. They determined the following:
Subjects who were subliminally primed with thoughts of death generated more humorous captions than those who were subliminally primed to think about pain. In the second scenario, subjects who were asked to write about death and pain produced funnier captions after they’d written about pain.
When given the subliminal death condition, one subject wrote: "When I said be sure not to forget the fish, I meant for you to feed them."
When given the subliminal pain condition, a subject wrote: "Who wants fish for dinner?"
“We were actually somewhat surprised that we didn’t see the same pattern across both kinds of death anxiety activation,” says Dara Greenwood, assistant professor of psychology at Vassar, who conducted the study with Christopher R. Long of Ouachita Baptist University. So how to explain these findings?
"People who were asked to write about their own death may have had a more negative reaction to the surreal nature of the cartoons," she says. Because abstract art lacks obvious meaning, Greenwood thinks it might have made subjects feel threatened and, therefore, hindered the creative process. She says it’s also possible that the link between humor production and death anxiety occurs “under the radar” (subconsciously).
What Greenwood does know from the study is that “comedy is potentially adaptive.” But the purpose of her research was to explore a new facet of Terror Management Theory and not to draw conclusions about how we might give our creativity a boost. Even so, before you dip your brush or write the first sentence of your new novel, you might do well to visit the dentist. Or at least write an essay about your last root canal.