Psychologists Finally Figure Out Whether You Made Your Hurricane Sandy Joke “Too Soon”

Psychology of humor kingpin Peter McGraw is back with another study on the connection between humor and psychological distance. In a 2012 study (pdf) McGraw found that humor depends on both the severity of an event and the distance (temporal, social, physical, etc.) that a person feels from it. The result is that something not severe, like tripping and falling, tends to quickly lose humor as time passes, while a severe event, like a car accident, requires the passage of time to attain its optimal moment of comedy.

In his most recent study McGraw and his team looked at how this played out with Hurricane Sandy. Using tweets from a mock Sandy Twitter account as jokes, the researchers looked at how the perceived humor of Sandy jokes evolved over time. The verdict? The optimal time to make a Sandy joke was about 4-5 weeks after landfall.

Humor is a ubiquitous experience that facilitates coping, social coordination, and well-being. We examine how humorous responses to a tragedy change over time by measuring reactions to jokes about Hurricane Sandy. Inconsistent with the belief that the passage of time monotonically increases humor, but consistent with the benign violation theory of humor, a longitudinal study reveals that humorous responses to Sandy’s destruction rose, peaked, and eventually fell over the course of 100 days. Time creates a comedic sweet spot that occurs when the psychological distance from a tragedy is large enough to buffer people from threat (creating a benign violation) but not so large that the event becomes a purely benign, nonthreatening situation. The finding can help psychologists understand how people cope and provide clues to what makes things funny and when they will be funny.

Overall, the findings were in line with the researchers’ earlier work. In order for something to be funny, it has to essentially be perceived as benign or non-threatening.


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