Understanding jokes requires a certain amount of mental agility, psychologists tell us, because you need to recognise a sudden shift in meaning, or appreciate the blending of odd contexts that don’t normally go together. A new study in the journal Cognitive Processing has tested whether intelligence plays the same role in the appreciation of sick or black humour: the kind of jokes that make light of death, illness and the vulnerable. Consistent with past research linking intelligence with joke appreciation, the participants who most liked cartoons based on black humour also scored highest on verbal and non-verbal IQ.
Fourteen researchers, led by Ulrike Willinger at the Medical University of Vienna, asked 156 participants, with an average age of 33 and including 76 women, to rate their comprehension and enjoyment of 12 black humour cartoons taken from The Black Book by Uli Stein. For instance, one cartoon depicted a confused man holding a public telephone, the voice coming from the phone saying: “Here is the answering machine of the self-help association for Alzheimer patients. If you still remember your topic, please speak after the tone.” The participants also completed basic tests of their verbal and non-verbal IQ and answered questions about their mood, aggressive tendencies and educational background.
The researchers identified three distinct groups of participants based on their understanding and appreciation for the sick cartoons (incidentally, age and gender appeared not to be relevant factors). One group showed the highest sick humour appreciation and comprehension, and they also scored the highest on verbal and non-verbal IQ, were better educated, and scored lower for aggression and bad mood. This fits with past research showing that sense of humour correlates with IQ, but refutes the somewhat commonly held belief that people who like black humour tend to be grumpy and perhaps a little prone to sadism.
A second group showed moderate comprehension and the lowest sick joke enjoyment. These people had average intelligence scores, but showed the most negative mood and the highest aggression. So perhaps opposite to what you might expect, this research found no evidence that grumpy, aggressive people enjoy sick or black humour. Meanwhile, the final group showed moderate sick humour comprehension and preference, and they had average intelligence scores, generally positive mood and moderate aggression scores.
Willinger and her team said their findings suggested black humour processing is a “complex information-processing task”, and were consistent with past research suggesting that low mood impairs humour appreciation, this seeming to be true even in the case of sick jokes. Apparently it takes a certain amount of intelligence, good mood and calmness to recognise and enjoy the “playful fiction” of black humour.