There’s nothing less funny than explaining a joke. But analysing humour can actually tell us a lot about the development of sympathy and empathy in children.
Having a joke land is a complex task which requires an in-depth understanding of both the situation and mental state of the person on the receiving end. One audience, for example, might find a joke hilarious, whereas another might find that same joke wildly offensive.
Zeroing in on the appropriate joke, therefore, is likely to require a good amount of empathy. This ability to imagine the thoughts and feelings of your audience is pivotal to humour being well-received, but the relationship between humour and empathy has only been addressed in a handful of studies so far. However, new research from Caitlin Halfpenny and Lucy James at Keele University gives us a window into how empathy shapes humour by taking a look at junior schoolchildren’s use of jokes, and the different humour styles that emerge with different levels of empathy and sympathy.
The team asked 214 junior school children aged between 9 and 11 years old to complete two self-report questionnaires. The first, the Humour Styles Questionnaire for young children (HSQ-Y), was used to identify which of four types of humour style the kids use: self-enhancing and affiliative, which are both adaptive humour styles, and aggressive and self-defeating humour, which are considered maladaptive. The second measure, the Thinking and Feeling Questionnaire (TFQ), looks at cognitive and affective empathy, as well as sympathy. Cognitive empathy can be thought of as intellectually understanding the perspective of another person, whereas affective empathy is the ability to feel congruent emotions in response to the conditions of others.
Analyses found that self-enhancing humour, which is used to relieve tension, boost mood, and overcome hardship, was the only style identified to be positively correlated with both types of empathy and sympathy. Kids who displayed this style, the authors suggest, are able to take on the perspective of their audience, understand their emotions, and sympathise with them.
The affiliative humour style, which primarily takes the form of humour to facilitate social interaction by amusing others, was found to positively correlate with just cognitive empathy, but not affective empathy or sympathy. This may reflect varying levels of cognitive development in this age group — it may be that the ability to sympathise had not yet fully developed in the children using this humour style.
As might be expected, aggressive humour was negatively correlated with measures of both affective empathy and sympathy, consistent with previous research on adults. Children who score low on these measures may be unable to appreciate the views and emotions of the audience, and thus struggle to adjust humour accordingly. Interestingly, displaying this maladaptive type of humour may limit the opportunities children have to socialise, giving them less of a chance to develop more adaptive humour styles.
Standing somewhat alone amongst the four styles, self-deprecating humour was not correlated with either measure of empathy. This may be due to the fact that this style focuses inward, rather than being concerned with the emotions and situations of others, or indeed what they’ll find funny. However, the authors note that some children in this age range may be unable to self-report on this style, as they don’t fully grasp what self-deprecating humour encompasses.
Humour styles also varied significantly between genders: boys were more likely to report using aggressive humour styles than girls, and were less likely to score highly in affective empathy. The exact reasons for these gender differences weren’t probed in this study.
These patterns of relationship between humour styles, empathy, and sympathy are a wonderful illustration of the complexity of social interactions at this age. More developed empathy and sympathy seem to give rise to self-enhancing humour styles, which are in turn associated with a number of benefits, such as social intimacy, high self-esteem, and lower levels of depression and anxiety. As such, children who have fully developed their empathy and sympathy skills may have more positive social interactions. In much the same way, less development in these domains may lead to maladaptive humour styles, which could alienate the children using these styles from their peers, and further inhibit their empathetic and sympathetic development. It’s possible that identifying such humour patterns and providing support for empathetic and/or sympathetic growth in children who often use them, therefore, may help them on their way to more adaptive social strategies.
Emma L. Barratt (@E_Barratt) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest