|Damage wreaked by Hurricane Sandy at Bay Head, New Jersey. Image: Skrum / Getty Images.|
As a tragedy unfolds, only the callous or gauche would joke about it. Yet with time, topics previously off limits come to be seen as fair game for humour. In fact, joke-making about loss and tragedy can be seen as a way to cope, or at least a reflection of coping. For a new study, Peter McGraw and his colleagues have charted people’s responses over time to jokes about a real tragedy – Hurricane Sandy, which struck the USA in 2012. The researchers were able to plot the way that the jokes were seen as funny prior to landfall, then offensive and unfunny as disaster struck, then funny as the horror faded, then unfunny again, presumably as the event lost its impact and topicality. “We find that temporal distance creates a comedic sweet spot,” they said.
Over a thousand participants were recruited online at different times. They were asked to rate three potentially humorous tweets ostensibly written by Hurricane Sandy. For instance, one said “Oh Shit just destroyed a Starbucks. Now I’m a pumpkin spice hurricane.”
The participants were recruited at ten different time periods, beginning the day before landfall (Oct 29, 2012), and then in the ensuing days and weeks, so that the final sample to be contacted rated the tweets on February 6, 2013. People’s responses fell into two distinct time frames. Over the course of the week during which the hurricane struck, the funniness of the tweets peaked prior to its arrival and then gradually diminished as the reality of loss and devastation became apparent. The second time frame covered two weeks to 99 days after the hurricane struck. Gradually, week-by-week, people rated the tweets as increasingly funny, with peak funniness observed at 36 days after the tragedy.
McGraw and his team said this result was consistent with “benign violation theory” – the idea that something is humorous when it is seen as both a threat and somehow safe at the same time. The perception of safety comes from psychological distance – in this study created by the passage of time, but geography, social distance (i.e. the threat is to someone else) and hypothetical distance (i.e. the threat is unreal) can all have the same effect.
In this research, as the tragic event of the hurricane faded into the past, it became safe to joke about it. Supporting this idea, people’s ratings of the offensiveness of the jokes declined in tandem with their perceived funniness. However, benign violation theory predicts that humour disappears when there is too little threat. This was borne out as ratings of the funniness of the jokes gradually declined from 36 days after the tragedy.
The researchers said future research could explore how other forms of psychological distance modulate the perceived funniness of jokes. For now they said their results favour a modification to the popular saying “humour is tragedy plus time” … “Transforming tragedy into comedy requires time, not too little yet not too much,” they said.
Peter McGraw, Lawrence Williams, and Caleb Warren (2013). The Rise and Fall of Humor: Psychological Distance Modulates Humorous Responses to Tragedy. Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550613515006
Psychologist magazine special issue on humour and laughter.