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date: 16 January 2021

Humor in Health and Risk Messagingfree

  • John C. MeyerJohn C. MeyerDepartment of Communication Studies, University of Southern Mississippi
  •  and Steven J. VenetteSteven J. VenetteDepartment of Communication Studies, University of Southern Mississippi


Humor is ubiquitous in communication and is thus worthy of study as part of messages relating to risks and health. Humor’s widely acknowledged effects invite systematic explanation and application by communication scholars interested in health and risk communication. Humor’s influence upon health and risk messages results from the theories of humor origin (incongruity, superiority, and relief), elements of humor perception (unifying or comic perspectives as opposed to tragic or divisive perspectives), and humor functions in social interactions (identification, clarification, enforcement, and differentiation). Humor can be used in messages to mitigate high ego involvement, high levels of fear, and a low sense of efficacy in terms of ability to respond to risk or health messages. Humor can serve to enhance relationships, allowing for more creative discussion of risks and health improvement, yet also can serve to pointedly tease or express a memorable perspective to capture attention regarding a risk or health issue.

Humor has been found to be a common element in messages that lighten the mood of a situation, enhance conversation and relationships, and promote playful and creative dialogue that can address problematic situations. The use of humor, then, in messages involving risk or health concerns sounds like a natural. Complications arise, however, in that communication in those situations takes place ideally to reduce tension, but many messages about risk or health issues wind up increasing tension. Individuals attempt to satisfy perceived needs or ameliorate stressors in a number of ways. In the best circumstances, people address risks using appropriate solutions. However, maladaptive responses emerge when individuals are stirred to control their emotional response to a hazard; denial, for instance, is a common means of reducing intense fear. Fear appeals are the traditional way messages assert a risk to be of concern, but these appeals may overpower any sense of efficacy a person has given their own sense of inability to do something about the risk. Humor in communication about a risk may serve to reduce the weight given to the sense of risk and enhance consideration of feasible actions to mitigate the risk, thus increasing perceived response efficacy. Here we highlight how appeals to humor can be an effective alternative to fear appeals in health communication campaigns. First, theories of tension reduction and effective communication about risk are explored, followed by background on the creation and effects of humor in communication. Finally, suggestions based on the literature for the use of humor in messages about risk and health are offered.

Tension Reduction as an Intrinsic Motivator

Many theories from diverse fields describe the innate human need to reduce tension and discomfort. Psychology offered drive reduction theory to explain motivation and learning. Hull (1935) hypothesized that people are motivated to respond to needs (mainly of a biological or physiological nature). These needs create drives, which are states of arousal caused by tension. A pebble in one’s shoe produces an unpleasant sensation that motivates the desire to remove the irritant. As a loved-one’s birthday draws near, a person might feel increasing pressure to buy a present, knowing that the failure to adequately honor that event would cause emotional (maybe even physical) discomfort. Likewise, people occasionally turn to drugs or alcohol to dull the pain of emotional trauma. While some aspects of drive reduction theory have been questioned, the basic premise has remained and has been the foundation for important work in the field of psychology.

People naturally experience feelings in response to living, and feeling is represented as the “tension structure of human consciousness” (Langer, 1953, p. 44). Human symbol use artistically serves ontological and epistemological functions by creating, reinforcing, and sharing knowledge. The communication of such representation affects people, insofar as the “life of feeling is a stream of tensions and resolutions. Probably all emotion, all feeling tone, mood and even ‘personal sense of life’ or ‘sense of identity’ is a specialized and intricate, but definitive interplay of tensions” (Langer, 1953, p. 372). Symbolic expression as art serves to express conceptually key truths of life by “setting up new tensions by the resolutions of former ones” (Langer, 1953, p. 157).Also, from an aesthetic viewpoint, music composition and theory draws upon people’s instinctive responses by using tension and release. For example, through repetition a composer might create a desire in the audience for a phrase to be completed. Dissonance creates unease when tones appear to be incongruent or in conflict. Composers use patterns of tension and resolution to communicate emotion.

The field of communication also addresses tension and resolution. Monroe’s motivated sequence explains that audiences, when they are not particularly inclined to take action, will be moved to action only if a salient need is established in their minds. That need can take the form of the presence of something negative. The diagnosis of a disease, the discovery of a flat tire, and the spilling of wine on a new carpet represent such salient needs emerging. Need can also be evoked by pointing to the absence of something good. Lack of rain, not having a cure for a disease, and a kidnapped princess would exemplify this form of need. Identifying a need is insufficient, of course, for the expectation that an audience will take action. The persuader must also demonstrate that a solution exists that will satisfy the need and thus resolve the perceived tension. The message “smoking kills” is unlikely to convince life-long smokers to quit. That message is not new to smokers. If no specific plan is offered that the smokers perceive as efficacious, the attempt at persuasion will fail. The tension will likely be perceived as unresolvable. Thus, a specific call to action is important. Even if the audience believes that a significant need exists and that the solution will work, they might not follow a recommended course of action if they do not know exactly how to participate in the solution. For example, a message might be designed to address the problem of children being poisoned by consuming household chemicals, like cleaners or pesticides. If the means of addressing the problem, satisfying the need, is to take unused chemicals to a community disposal facility, unmotivated people likely would not participate unless they know exactly where it is, when the hours of operation are, what chemicals it will collect, and so on. Overly general calls to action (e.g., “Just say no to drugs”) are highly ineffective unless the audience is already inclined to follow the recommended course of action.

Theories of health communication also acknowledge the need to reduce tension for audiences. The transactional model of stress and coping identifies tensions as stressors. Stress is transactional based on perceived applicability of the stressor and the individual’s perceived ability to respond (Lazarus & Folkman, 1987). The stressor leads a person to assess the potential threat. During this primary appraisal, the significance and applicability of the hazard are evaluated. If the threat is thought to be important and relevant, the person performs a secondary appraisal where he or she identifies potential ways to cope with the stressor, or relieve the tension. Fundamentally, this model suggests that people are looking for reasonable responses to their important problems.

The health belief model, with its progeny the parallel process model and the extended parallel process model, have a similar view of how people respond to health threats. When a person learns of a hazard, he or she makes a determination about the perception of the risk. Risk, in this context, is determined by two concepts. The first is the likelihood that the negative event will occur. Second, if the hazard were to manifest, how bad would the consequences be? For example, when a person sees that the time has come again to get a flu shot, that person thinks about the probability that she will have the flu this season and, if she did, what the consequences might be. An elderly person who works at a daycare center might perceive that the odds of catching the flu are high and that influenza can be life-threatening, especially for older people.

Next, a person evaluates efficacy. Efficacy also has two forms. First is self-efficacy, which is the perception that a person has something meaningful she can do to respond. Second is response efficacy, or the belief that if an action is taken, it would be effective in addressing the problem, thus relieving the tension. When probability and consequences are perceived to be high but efficacy is thought to be low, people can be expected to respond by attempting to relieve tension by controlling their emotional responses. For instance, a person diagnosed with late-stage, inoperable cancer may seek a support group to reduce fear and sadness, or might even go into a state of denial. When efficacy is perceived to be high, motivation to control the danger should also be high. Early discovery of cancerous tissue with effective, standard treatment procedures available will usually result in the patient opting to follow the recommended treatment.

When practitioners base health campaigns on relevant theory, they make people aware of the relevance and danger of the threat. The advice given (either directly or indirectly) is to design messages using fear appeals. Fear appeals are functionally a form of negative reinforcement. They are messages designed to change belief or behavior by evoking a sense of dread in the audience. The message creates a tension, and a recommended solution is offered as a means of release. This strategy can backfire, however, especially when the audience is inclined to respond through emotion control. A scary message might “blow a fuse” in the target group, resulting in a maladaptive response. In essence, if the message is too effective at evoking fear, a person might shift to denial, may reject the message outright, or could act in a way that would not be recommended. A person might be so afraid of skin cancer that he never goes outside during the day. Or someone watching too many Internet videos might be convinced that pasteurization is a tool used by corporate agriculture that robs milk of nutrients. She might seek out unpasteurized milk and thus expose her children to harmful bacteria.

If the hazard is perceived to be overwhelmingly large, the benefits of acting would have to be even larger to entice the adoption of the course of action. Danger and efficacy are like two sides balanced on a fulcrum. When the balance tips toward efficacy, the audience perceives that following the prescribed action can be done and would be effective. When the danger is perceived to have more weight than the solution, or if the proposed solution has more disadvantages than benefits, the audience is unlikely to be persuaded. If a message designer finds herself in a situation where a fear appeal would be inappropriate because emotion (i.e., fear) control is more likely than danger control, theory would recommend that emphasis should be placed on efficacy. But that advice might place too much of a burden on the message to “put weight” on the solution to counteract the weight of the perceived threat.

Efficacy-side emphasis downplays important communication strategies focused on the danger side. Positive danger-side strategies encourage the audience to view the danger from a different perspective or to reexamine the threat. For example, some messages about cancer have sought to reduce fear by reminding listeners that being diagnosed with cancer is not a death sentence. So, one strategy is to acknowledge that a threat is real but reject the idea that the threat should be seen as overwhelming. A second positive danger-side strategy is the focus here, since clearly tension can be released through health messages that appeal to humor.

Discussion of the Literature—Theories of Humor Origin

Humor inevitably will impact health and risk messages because it is an essential part of human communication. Its compelling nature and common inclusion in communication has sparked a great deal of interest in exploration of its origins. One common element in such study has forwarded the detection of a change, whether in a person’s perceptions, cognitions, or physiological responses (Gruner, 1997; Morreall, 1983; Shurcliff, 1968), as crucial to ensure the presence of humor. When humor emerges, a change or disruption is evident for a person. All overarching theories attempting to describe the origins of humor acknowledge that it stems from a change or disruption of the life pattern. People live with certain expectations of patterns, so when an event happens or a thought is perceived that changes perceptions, a response then follows that, when it fulfills certain conditions, involves humor. Usually, humor stems from a pleasant change, and most people seek out humor and consider it to be a key part of a desirable personality and life experience. Messages including humor are thus likely to be sought out and gain more attention—and perhaps be more persuasive. Theoretical explanations of humor have followed three major directions, involving physiological relief, psychological superiority, and cognitive incongruity (Meyer, 2000; Morreall, 1983).

Relief theory holds that humor results primarily from a release of tension by an individual (Shurcliff, 1968). Reasons for the tension relief may vary, but the humor experience is a change in physiological state and can therefore be detected medically or biologically. One may perceive a danger reduced or removed, a riddle solved, or a story concluded that produces a relief reaction that is humor. An alteration of a potentially threatening pattern is indicated by humor as relief. This theory suggests that successful inclusion of humor in messages about risk could reduce tension, or fear, and make possible more reasonable consideration of alternative actions, thus increasing the sense of personal efficacy.

Superiority theory holds that humor results primarily from a sense of accomplishment or elevation over other people (Gruner, 1997). One gets a psychological “one-up” on others that is a source of humor—whether it is accomplishing something, avoiding a danger or drawback that affects others, or winning over another through a verbal riposte, story, or memorable line. Humor use can thus divide people based on those superior, or one’s laughing with one another, against those being laughed at. Humor violates a pattern as an inequality emerges and one’s superiority is memorably pointed out or revealed. If one can be shown a simple or feasible way to avoid a risk or preserve one’s health, one can then laugh at those who fail to do so, feeling that natural sense of superiority.

Incongruity theory holds that humor is a cognitive perception of a non-threatening violation of an expected pattern (Levasseur & Dean, 1996). Humor is perceived when one has learned a pattern that is suddenly violated. Social norms are often the key patterns violated, and thus humor can have a social unifying effect among those who recognize the pattern and understand its violation. Without a pattern violation, no humor will be perceived, and conversely if the pattern violation is highly dramatic or threatening, then no humor will be perceived. This is the most intellectual theory of humor, suggesting that patterns and mental games relating to them are key to appreciating humor. In the face of messages about risk and health, the ability to “play” with incongruities through humor may serve to distance one from the emotions elicited by such messages and enhance creativity in considering alternatives, once again increasing the sense of efficacy.

Such theories have been forwarded in efforts to explain the origin of humor in general. Morreall (1983) sought to define humor by including all three theories and noting that each of them were simply variations of the “pleasant psychological shift” (p. 39) that is the defining characteristic of humor. Morreall defined the humor experience broadly, holding that a pleasant change in cognition may be based on elements of superiority, incongruity, or relief, or certainly elements of all three. His was an integrative model of humor. Yet clearly a change, or violation of a pattern, was also essential to Morreall’s explanation of humor.

Veatch (1998) explored humor origins in greater detail, claiming that humor resulted from violations of a pattern referred to as an expected moral order. For Veatch, humor is a cognitive function experienced only if an expected norm or expected moral order is perceived, a violation of that norm is also perceived, and both are perceived simultaneously. Risk and health messages often inherently violate the desired expected norm that we personally are safe and healthy. Yet when only a pattern violation is perceived, humor may not be experienced. Conversely, if the norm is perceived along with no serious violation of it, humor may not be perceived. Yet, if a sense of normal and violation of that normal coexist in mind, humor is experienced. Thus, a change in perceptions or violation of an expected pattern is essential to humor, to exist simultaneously in mind with a perception of an expected pattern or moral order. Some kind of reassurance that “life goes on” or “we can handle this” can interact with the content of a risk or health message to allow for an experience of humor.

Once the pattern disruption that may lead to humor occurs, there is wide variation in human responses to it. Some find it funny and experience humor, but others do not. Explaining these idiosyncratic differences has been a key barrier to developing a comprehensive theory of humor in communication. There is an element of intentionality in humor, as it seems that we choose whether or not to find an event or perception funny (Attardo & Raskin, 1993). When humans, consciously or subconsciously, make such a choice, one’s mood and previous experiences set the stage for whether humans will experience humor or not (Carrell, 1992). Rather than assuming a health or risk message is funny because the sender intended it to be so, one can seek to add humor but never be guaranteed that the receiver will “get” it or take the message as including humor.

The experience of humor has been placed abstractly in a mental state referred to as the comic mode (Burke, 1984). One can treat events and statements “in fun” and thus not accept serious consequences as necessary or relevant. This mode enhances creativity, largely due to the ability to perceive varied perspectives simultaneously (Veatch, 1998). One can remain personally at a distance from events, thoughts, and consequences, as one “toys” with them in mind and perhaps laughs at them physically. This sense of distance from events and potential control of them likely serve for humor to release tension, improve health, and make events seem more manageable (DuPre, 1998; Lefcourt, 2001). The potential power of humor in health and risk messages stems from this ability to enact a comic mode, reducing the weight or fear of risks themselves, and entertaining various ways of mitigating the risk or improving health.

The tragic mode, on the other hand, involves accepting yet perhaps lamenting one’s fate that in general cannot be changed (Burke, 1984). The consequences of events or one’s own actions are mentally imminent and overwhelming. Even if one has a choice, it is fraught with drama and potentially dangerous consequences. Because consequences matter so much personally, no psychological distance or playfulness is possible with options or perceptions of them. Tension grows and one is “serious” about the issue—choices must be made and the consequences matter. Humor can emerge, though, from this often immediate yet crucial and stark choice. Will the pattern disruption result in experiencing humor through the comic mode, or response as to serious consequences in the tragic mode? Key reasons, unique to each individual in a given potentially humorous situation, are suggested that turn the decision toward the comic mode, and appreciating and experiencing humor, or toward the tragic mode of remaining serious about events.

Ego involvement is the “number one” determiner of the humor choice. The more ego-involved in an issue one is, the more identity one has invested in the issue and the more consequences matter to the individual (Sherif, Sherif, & Nebergall, 1965). Thus, the capacity to see humor in a situation is less with larger levels of ego involvement. High ego involvement in an issue leads to a choice of the tragic mode, while low ego involvement in an issue leads to the comic mode and an ability to playfully consider norm violations or alternatives. Messages about risks or health, conveying information that may naturally be viewed as a threat to the individual, naturally incite potentially high ego involvement. Some ability to laugh in the face of such risks or health concerns could help one deal with them in the more creative and flexible comic mode rather than in the inflexible fate-determined tragic mode.

Key Influences on Messages About Risk and Health

Humor in communication, as with any message, not only serves to transmit information or share meaning but also engages a relationship between those exposed to it. Humor thus may communicate multiple meanings and serve multiple communication purposes at once. Attempts to understand the purposes or functions of humor in communication generally start with a basic division: humor unites or divides (Meyer, 1990, 2000). Humor functions range on a continuum from unifying to dividing, yet the unifying functions are often found most rewarding, reducing focus on the more divisive ones. The former enthrall and motivate communicators to proceed. The latter, however, can insult, infuriate, and redefine social boundaries.

Also key to humor appreciation is script awareness (Attardo & Raskin, 1993; Raskin, 1985). One must know the pattern in order to know that it has been violated. If one has only cursory knowledge of a language or situation, one may not understand how a violation has occurred. Or one may view it as simply a “random variation” encountered in life without attaching any meaning to it. If no relevant social meaning is tied to an act or symbol, no meaningful alteration of it may be perceived, and hence no humor may be experienced. Bona fide messages assume that, following a stable pattern, the consequences to the communication matter to the individuals involved, and a serious response is expected. The script is followed literally, with no elaborated or subversive meaning. With humor, however, non–bona fide messages may follow as they do not “matter” in the sense that follow-up actions are not required; messages simply may “play” with concepts and acknowledge the contradiction or duality of perceptions inherent in humor. Beside the literal meaning messages may have, receivers may understand more subversive meanings of messages relating to the pattern violation. With humor perceived, a variety of perspectives are simultaneously possible, the purposes or meanings of messages communicated may suddenly change, and so non–bona fide messages are not meant to be taken “seriously.” If messages conveying information about risks or health can do so along with a more playful or subversive perspective including humor, further messages about the topic could be enhanced in terms of a sense of creativity and personal safety. Humor sharing shows that communication with the other is not risky even if the topic of the messages may be. Communicators who share humor mutually understand the pattern or script being enacted but may be willing to comically “play” with those patterns and laugh or make fun of their more absurd implications.

Other important issues that affect the humor choice include the source of the message, the mood or state of mind of the individual, and the confidence level experienced related to the issue. In short, the audience and the situation need to be incorporated in any consideration of humor (Carrell, 1992). One takes previous humorous acts into account when evaluating messages from a given person in a given situation. Thus, humor is more likely to be perceived coming from someone known to the sender, especially when it comes to ego-involving messages like those about risks and health. A developed relationship gives a set of ongoing mutual patterns to set up for humorous violations. Also, even in tragic situations people are capable of appreciating humor (McGhee, 1999). People can laugh at or make light of normally “serious” situations to gain a new perspective on them. A more complete understanding and sense of control of a situation or issue may lead to the choice of the comic mode (Burke, 1984; Davis, 2000). A lack of control or confidence in an issue, however, can lead one to worry or fear and thence into the tragic mode. Serious, consequence-invoking messages may then be expected and sent. Thus, although there may not be any single given formula to explain how a person chooses to respond to potential humor, whether through a choice of comic mode appreciating humor or the tragic mode missing it entirely, clear factors influence this choice, and clear message functions of humor follow from it.

Functions of Humor in Communication

Four key functions of humor have emerged through research: identification, clarification, enforcement, and differentiation (Meyer, 2000). Imagining a continuum of humor function moving from most unifying to most divisive, identification and clarification fall on the unity side of the continuum, as identification focuses on the shared script or expectations that communicators mutually share. The clarification function memorably encapsulates a perspective through a humorous remark. Enforcement and differentiation fall, instead, on the division side of the humor continuum. Enforcement humor pinpoints social norm violations or a lack of expected or required knowledge, while differentiation humor places in dramatic contrast another person, group, or perspective through clear putdowns. Unifying functions facilitate agreement and interpersonal bonding, while the dividing functions oppose, raise doubts, or establish social boundaries through humor.

Identification, the strongest unifying function of humor, occurs with messages that focus on shared context or meaning. Humor shows that some key aspect of the topic engenders mutual agreement among communicators. A “truth” gets pointed out that communicating parties instantly can see and relate to. “Inside jokes” that refer back to shared experiences often serve this humor function. Interpersonal bonds are reinforced through shared humor. Shared values or ongoing relationships are reinforced using this function of humor. A unique or unusual take on a risk or health situation could be invoked here to show that the parties are “on the same page.” One can include a laughter-worthy statement to indicate a strong understanding of the other. Health or risk situations can be recontextualized through shared messages that both communicators see as funny whether due to violations of shared patterns or unique reformulations of them.

Group cohesiveness also grows through identification humor (Graham, Papa, & Brooks, 1992). Humor use often dramatically reduces uncertainty about others, as shared laughter indicates a shared perspective that can lead to identification with the others sharing in humor. When others in a group react to humor similarly to oneself, all partake in the rewards of being “in the know” and an accepted part of the collective experience. Humor serves a powerful function by integrating communicators through identification with a discussed experience or issue stance through shared values, reducing uncertainty and tensions while integrating communicators into a stronger group (Meyer, 1997). Since risk and health messages often foreground uncertainty about a situation, increased certainty about persons one communicates with can be most welcome.

For public speakers, identification humor builds credibility (Gruner, 1985; Malone, 1980). Some common ground for communication becomes clear between speaker and audience that enhances attention. Speakers often invoke self-deprecatory humor to relate to audiences by showing a shared humanity and interest in the same values (Chapel, 1978). Such sharing reduces audience uncertainty and ambivalence, facilitating attention to desired messages. Identifying and relating to an audience through humor can lead to their being more attuned to messages indicating risks and influencing healthy behaviors. One may powerfully invoke specific information about the audience in such instances, but some examples could be used with many audiences: “I wondered why the baseball kept getting bigger,” intoned one speaker. “Then it hit me.” Effective users of identification humor place themselves and the audience on the same social level through mutual laughter or appreciation of humor in shared experiences and meanings. The relief experienced through such tension reduction can enamor an audience with the speaker and perhaps with the message as well.

A slightly less unifying, somewhat more “edgy” humor function, clarification humor, envelops an opinion or belief in a sharp phrase or anecdote. As the humor use captures attention and stimulates memory, receivers recall the position advocated with extra clarity (Goldstein, 1976; Gruner, 1967). Crisp, pointed comments thus reinforce a commonly experienced social norm. In a workplace plagued by budget shortfalls and potential layoffs, a manager might convene a meeting using the announcement: “Well, contrary to rumors, we all still have our jobs. So, let’s get to work.” This puts frustration, uncertainty, and tension about continuity on the job together in one statement that appears to factually put all them to rest, but is unusual for the start of a business meeting. This potential humor clarifies a perspective on an issue in one memorable phrase, with hopes of making possible further conversation about serious work and the purpose of the meeting. The incongruity of a message’s violation of expectations makes it stand out all the more, yet its intended message is still communicated. The expected pattern of messages is reinforced by laughter at an “exception” to the norm or rule.

When the emphasis of the remark focuses on the expected norm rather than a perceived violation of such a norm, the humor clarifies beliefs or social norms. In the workplace, for instance, humorous remarks or teases have long been explored as responses to receiving new information. Humor use clarifies how a group will respond to potential change (Ullian, 1976). Discomfort and uncertainty about change can be channeled through remarks that make light of the need for altering routines or the social order. Essential to the clarification function, a memorable expression of a position on an issue can be made through a humorous remark that allows a sudden and dramatic clash of a perceived violation with an expected norm. Such humorous and sudden clarifications of change in the face of expected patterns may prove especially crucial as individuals and groups adapt to messages indicating risk or suggesting altered behavior for health’s sake.

The clarification function of humor can entertain audiences and set them up to be persuaded at the same time. Thoughts like “I had never thought of it that way” or “that’s so true” that follow such humor may make receivers open-minded enough for possible persuasion (Grimes, 1955). Clarification lets receivers suddenly think about a topic in a different way. A different view of the effects of aging may stem from an interview of a 104-year-old woman, who was asked, “And what do you think is the best thing about being 104?” She simply replied, “No peer pressure.” A sudden, different way to consider advanced age is suddenly presented to the mind. Humor’s power to memorably make a point, generally short of teasing or attacking, is encapsulated in the clarification function.

Enforcement humor is found by moving toward the more divisive end of the humor function continuum; it provides for potentially friendly criticism of someone violating social expectations. Similar to the clarification function in that one’s position can be made clear through humor, this function adds an element of criticism or attack to it. The most common enforcement humor is the tease. Such humor “calls to account” a person or group found to be outside expected social norms. A found incongruity now needs correction. For any unique violation, a humorous tease can serve as reminder of the norm and the act that needs correcting. Warnings of need to cope with risk or health issues may be thus issued in the form of teases or “digs”: “You’re going to kill yourself if you keep on smoking like that,” or “You’ll kill us all if you drive like this.” Such remarks, often couched in an ongoing friendly relationship, stand out as implied critiques of behavior needing change to reduce risk or improve health that can be taken as a humorous tease or reminder of the expected pattern or behavior that appears to be violated.

Duncan (1962) suggested that humor enforces social norms through “discipline by laughter.” People often have a strong desire not to be the subject of humor or jokes and will take pains to avoid it. Thus, being teased about something lets a person and other witnesses know that such divergences from the norm will be noted, pointed out, and perhaps ridiculed. As people take corrective actions to avoid teasing they strengthen social norms by conforming to them with more zeal. Teases serve to gently correct while maintaining some level of identification with another party (Alberts, Kellar-Gunther, & Corman, 1996; Graham et al., 1992; Young & Bippus, 2001). Enough contact has preceded the interaction that shared norms make possible mutual understanding of humor “scripts.” One is familiar enough with relational norms to understand a violation. Such messages can mitigate the implied threat of harm possible in risk and health topics by humorously pointing out behavior patterns that can be easily corrected.

Messages about risk tend to be about topics outside the expected pattern, or express the chances of an occurrence outside of the norm. This makes them ripe for humor. The attention and laughter that such norm violations receive reinforce the strength of an important social norm that, as the humor reactions indicate, should not be changed. After all, if the norm was trivial or of little concern, violating it would be a non-noteworthy event. Violations of a norm that matters, however, prove to be funny because the norm in fact does matter. The implication is that behavior should be altered to conform to the desired pattern or norm, but at present, since this is funny, there are no serious consequences pending since the behavior can be readily changed. Humorous messages about health or risk carry the underlying concern that, for now, the situation is not serious, but if the behavior is not altered, then it may become serious or tragic, and no longer humorous.

Contrasting one group or individual as dramatically opposed to another, differentiation serves as the most divisive function of humor. A communicator may ridicule another speaker or group by drawing a memorable distinction between them. One party is clearly laughed at by those laughing with the humorous messenger. Those who perceive the humor in such remarks understand the social divisions referred to. Messages about health or risks may characterize those who are acting to improve health or reduce risk as normal and intelligent, as opposed to those who are ignorant or inactive and therefore worthy of laughter. Differentiation humor exposes social alliances and divisions. Ridicule may serve unity as well as division as it reinforces alliances among one group’s members by highlighting contradictions with and differences from others (Schutz, 1977). Research suggests that jokes disparaging a disliked group are funnier to receivers than those disparaging a liked group (Goldstein, 1976). Humor can elicit a sense of belonging to a “good group” or of being a “good person” as opposed to those others who are funny due to ignorance or malevolence. Those who take precautions and act against risks or in favor of improved health can be contrasted with those who are too stupid, ignorant, or just plain lazy to do so. The contrast of those others with one’s own success leads to an experience of humor.

Humor use may serve to raise even a hint of disagreement with a power structure or authority. This may arouse interest in an audience through enactment of potential conflict or drama. People enjoy clashes and competitions, and humor cloaks natural human conflict in an aura of good will, at least between humor senders and receivers. Joking about the ignorant, the managers, or political groups perceived as oppressive may spark high levels of enjoyment. Even as one feels compelled to take action to reduce risk or improve health, one may not want to or experiences the natural human tendency to resist perceived authority. Even in the face of well-intended behavioral influences or even coercions, one can “rebel” through humor and perhaps escape serious consequences, while sharing communication powerfully with those who feel similarly. For instance, one may understand the improved safety caused by removing swing sets and merry-go-rounds from children’s playgrounds, while still lamenting to a colleague: “They don’t want the kids to have any fun outside anymore!” (Accounts of schools that have banned kids playing “tag” outside may elicit even more such comments.) Actions taken to reduce risk may thus be critiqued through using differentiation humor.

Putting opponents or those outside of desired social norms in their place through mockery—showing that they believe or do ridiculous things—has long been a staple of comedy. Comedians ridicule individual “idiots,” misled social groups, or even particular audience members. Politicians have long used narrative to scorn through satire, and put down through buffoonery, those they oppose. One of Cicero’s key persuasive tools in defending ancient Roman citizens was to ridicule their accusers through humor (Volpe, 1977). As potentially the harshest function of humor, receivers who recognize divisive humor may congratulate themselves on improving health or reducing risk, while those who do not may not recognize characterizations of their actions as jokes. If they do, they may likely take offense at the humor use as a serious attack. The perceptions of conformity to norms and experiencing their violation are drawn in highly dramatic contrast through differentiation. This humor function has been viewed most prominently through hundreds of years, as “superiority” has long been viewed as a key element of humor (Gruner, 1997) and humor was viewed as in bad taste in many eras as flouting social convention (Morreall, 1983). Differentiation humor sets up and reinforces social boundaries, and varied responses to health and risk messages can thus be set apart and resulting social groupings more clearly understood.

Humor for Social Influence

Among the qualities valued when first meeting another person is a sense of humor. Experiencing a person’s response to humor assists understanding of the person’s perspectives on the world (Meyer, 2015). Thus, upon first meeting, one finds a temptation to test out the relationship by attempting to use humor. Shared humor builds one’s confidence in and understanding of the other, prompting further comfortable communication. Increasing mutual understanding becomes humor’s most common purpose in its enactment through communication. This key function of seeking similarities or commonalities takes on extra import when communicating about highly ego-involving issues related to health and risks. Successfully eliciting laughter about such issues can set the stage for effective persuasion. Mutual norms for communication and shared perspectives on the issues discussed emerge when parties share in a humor experience. Such gauging of responses to humor fulfills a basic need for uncertainty reduction (Berger & Bradac, 1982). Reduced uncertainly is especially needed when communicating about health care or incipient risks, suggesting the usefulness of humor associated with such messages.

A public speaker often will seek to reduce uncertainty as a talk gets underway, as often jokes are tried early on to ingratiate an audience. A perception of common understanding through humor can unite speakers with audiences. Relevant humor shows an audience that its members are appreciated by the speaker and gets them involved. Successful humor relaxes both speaker and audience, especially important when discussing health or personal risks, and makes both more open to further interaction. The chance taken by invoking humor one hopes to share with an audience may be rewarded by an extra level of comfort with and acceptance by that audience. Laughing together with a speaker shows an alliance on some level with that speaker.

The ability of humor to provide more sense of objectivity toward an issue, more interest in it, and more credibility to the communicator makes it a useful tool of social influence (Meyer, 2015). Messages about risk and health often suffer from getting tuned out due to high levels of fear appeal or low levels of perceived efficacy. The mental distance or objectivity that humor enhances can assist in managing the issue, and humor also brings an entertainment factor along with the issue of humaneness from the other party showing shared understanding of the issue. The perception that humor gives of “being on the same page” suggests that, if one shares humor with someone, one is more persuadable by that someone. A sense of entertainment results from humor use that may lower people’s usual defenses against persuasion through distraction (Petty & Brock, 1981). One gets busy laughing and appreciating the humorous perspective, while persuasive messages may alter one’s views. Communicators about health and risk may seek to inculcate persuasive messages by couching them within humorous appeals. Familiar and agreeable views expressed humorously may reinforce an opinion, while laughing at a well-phrased oppositional statement opens one to at least hear and entertain divergent views since understanding humor requires understanding multiple perspectives on an issue (Meyer, 2012). In order to perceive humor, one must have a sense of moral right or expected pattern and a conception of a violation of that expectation in mind simultaneously (Veatch, 1998). Entertaining such multiple perspectives on an issue may lead one to reconsider opinions or behaviors on that issue. Humor requires—and perhaps elicits—a sense of objectivity about an issue to appreciate it (Grimes, 1955).

Messages about health and risk point to high-stakes issues for the self and one’s perceived competence, safety, and responses to potential threats. Such ramifications tend to set up defenses about one’s competence and ego. High ego involvement in an issue leads one to accept few non-serious or contradictory messages about it, making humor appreciation less likely. If humor appreciation lowers the ego involvement of the audience in a topic, changing minds will be easier (Sherif et al., 1965). A major danger to persuasion appears when humor at the expense of a topic that receivers are ego-involved in results in more defensive reactions without appreciation of the humor (Futch & Edwards, 1999). Yet, if people can joke about a topic, they become less attached to it and can at least entertain more objectivity. Rationality and objectivity go hand in hand, and humorous messages promoting more objectivity through laughing at an issue may lead to persuasion through rational appeals. Incongruity from humor can help receivers see a new perspective on the topic—the perspective they were surprised by along with the one they had been attached to. Using humor in communication successfully may open receivers to other perspectives on a health or risk issue, thus facilitating persuasion.

Multiple studies through the years show that using humor can bolster speaker credibility with audiences and hold their attention (Gruner, 1967, 1970; Duncan & Nelson, 1985). Humor use thus promotes a “sharedness” that can enhance relationships and further interaction and facilitate influence of health- and risk-related messages. Such messages demand that the purposes or functions that humor serves in communication range further than simple unifying ingratiation. Audiences also appreciate sudden memorable quips that can make an issue clearer and will laugh at some jokes ridiculing others—or even themselves or their own group subject to particular health or other risks—so messages about better health or avoiding risk can be dramatized by laughter at others who fail to do so.

Basic conversational functions also occur through the invocation of humor’s most vocal marker—laughter: it indicates a switch of conversational turns, it shows how one should receive a comment, it shows how a comment was taken by the other party, it seeks further elaboration of a point, and, as already explored here, it shows unity in the relationship (O’Donnell-Trujillo & Adams, 1983). As a conversational tool, then, humor serves to clarify on a “micro” or conversational level what one said, what meaning was intended, and what meaning was received. This suggests how, even during messages fraught with uncertainties or dangers to health and forwarding risk assessment, small instances of laughter may be common. The overall situation may not be funny, but at least small conversational elements of it are. These acknowledgments of small humor instances can facilitate needed serious communication, such as messages about risk that involve potential threats from non-routine events (Ulmer, Sellnow, & Seeger, 2007). Making risk more palatable by showing an ability to laugh at potential non-routine events may elicit more sense of control through humor.

Humor often enhances chances of creativity in messages or dialogue. Along with shared humor comes taking for granted some shared knowledge or scripts as background to the messages. Humor also implies a non-serious or non–bona fide element to its communication (Raskin, 1985). One is not committed to the truth of one’s statements when invoking humor—though what is said could well be true. That lack of commitment to “truth” for the sake of humor is what allows extra creativity. Health and risk messages are likely to be more effective when creativity is allowed in the development of dialogue—even in intense crisis situations this can enhance effective communication (Hammer, 2007). Humor also serves to critique or mock in ways where one can than say “I was only joking” if another tries to take one’s remarks seriously. One can thus tease or critique a friend in a playful tone, simultaneously making a (negative) point and reinforcing a (positive) relationship (Mills & Babrow, 2003). Humor in communication manages to “say something” about the relationship or communication itself, giving humor a component of metacommunication (Berger, 1995).

Dangers in Communicating Risk Through Humor

The playful element of humor suggests a lack of commitment to information conveyed humorously (Raskin, 1985), yet humor’s potential to gain audience interest and good will points to its continued use. On the positive side of humor inclusion in messages about risk, diverting attention from serious or fear-inducing appeals with humor could actually enhance persuasion. Distraction with humor can actually enhance persuasive effects (Osterhouse & Brock, 1970), as being entertained by humor lowers people’s tendency to come up with counterarguments in response to persuasion. Thus, risk messages laced with humor may enhance their persuasive effect, and messages exploring changing behaviors to improve health could get more attention. Even if not fully incorporated or believed at the time of reception, such appeals could show some staying power. Evidence exists of persuasive messages that include humor being more persuasive over the long term, even if not immediately (Nabi, Moyer-Guse, & Byrne, 2007). The distractions and entertaining elements of humor use in persuasion suggest potential for increasing responses to messages about personal health and various types of risks. The hope, though, relies on humor’s distraction and entertainment balancing the persuasion so that the latter is effective over time.

Humor as persuasive by being an entertaining distractor can be a problematic assumption, however, as the presence of humor must not overwhelm the persuasive appeals. Multiple public information and public relations or advertising campaigns that tried using humor to persuade have found it to backfire as people found them so highly entertaining that they did not take them seriously (Skalski, Tamborini, Glazer, & Smith, 2009). Many people, for instance, remember funny commercials (especially noting those aired during the Super Bowl) yet have no clear idea what product or brand was being advertised. One time, in a more recent interval where watching videos via social media had become a prevalent practice, ideas were suggested about ways to convey easy methods of risk prevention to families nationwide. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention then initiated a stunningly successful disaster-prevention movement by posting videos on the web constituting a “zombie apocalypse” preparedness campaign. It received thousands of hits on social media and was viewed as a stunningly successful campaign at garnering public attention. This indeed it was. Yet follow-up studies showed that only a miniscule number of those who paid attention to the campaign actually took steps to prepare their households for a true disaster, which was the real purpose for the campaign (Fraustino & Ma, 2015). The entertainment value of the campaign spots served to completely overwhelm the serious persuasive attempt. People tuned in for entertainment only and did not take the next step to seriously consider the persuasive appeal behind the humor. Humor thus serves as a better single ingredient for setting up persuasion than it does as the major way to inculcate influential messages about health improvement and risk mitigation.

Paradoxes of Humor in Messages

Humor’s tendency to unite or divide elicits the difficulties one finds with using humor in communication: the joke that did not work because the audience did not “get it” (did not understand what pattern might be referred to, or the humor script); the story that the audience takes so “seriously” that they see no solid pattern but only a dangerous violation; the humor that puts down someone the receiver values or likes and makes the violation seem far too severe to laugh at; or the humorous remark that seemed to fail because the audience found it trivial—a minor “blip” in a pattern of life (Meyer, 2015). Humor may dramatically reinforce a communicator’s success through identification with an audience or clarification of a point. It can also spell a failure to communicate as shared values and social expectations are not evident in the attempt at humor. Humor thus draws distinctions between those who “get” a joke, and are “on board” with health improvement or risk mitigation, and those who apparently do not share unity or shared understanding of risks to health or well-being.

Humor can thus serve as a social manipulation tool. The four functions of humor serve to position others as closer to or further away from one’s own—or one’s own group’s—understanding of reality. Martineau (1972) described how humor could unite groups together and divide one group’s members from others, suggesting that humor within and between group members could fortify group unity or cause conflict and divide or reorganize relationships between members or groups. “Those who laugh together, stay together,” one dares to say. The identification and clarification functions suggest ways to present messages focused on health or risk in a friendly or fun way. Yet those laughed at or feeling alienated by attempted humorous messages may close off possible reception of useful health and risk messages when targeted by enforcement or differentiation humor. Charting shared humor will likely result in clear delineation together of social groups and hierarchical levels. Getting others to laugh or having them refuse to do so send clear messages going forward about the social organization that people perceive.

One cannot know humor’s ultimate function unless one focuses on its receiver and its context. Humorous incidents are judged based upon both affective and cognitive information, so that experience and situation are involved in the presence of humor (Leventhal & Cupchik, 1976). Humor meant by its producer to unify, for instance, might be considered the height of differentiation to an offended party. One may perceive superiority instead of an intended highlighting of incongruity (Gruner, 1997; Morreall, 1983). Also, a basic choice is made by both senders and receivers of humor whether to experience humor or not (Attardo & Raskin, 1993). Humorous messages intended for tension relief, taken in a “bona fide” spirit, may communicate basic information only or simply nonsense without the perception of humor (Raskin, 1985). The “non–bona fide” playful aspect of humor is key to experiencing the mental duality that allows its experience. Depending on the context of the situation, though, one may choose to “play” or not. Theoretical explanations of feeling superiority, relief, or a sense of incongruity may fail to explain a situation where humor is not perceived after all. So context and personality play a big part in whether or not humor is perceived, whatever theory may then explain it.

Humor leads to enough useful and practical communicative consequences that its use, while potentially socially treacherous, will continue to be found worthwhile. Its dramatic means of unifying and laying ground for persuasion of audiences suggest that it is a powerful communication tool. So does its patterns of use and appreciation affect how we perceive other people—and our desire to develop relationships with and be influenced by them. Prosocial behaviors involving humor, for instance, increase compliance-gaining in the college classroom (Punyanunt, 2000). Negative humor that puts down an audience or its members serves, not surprisingly, to decrease the credibility or persuasiveness of the message (Frymier, Wanzer, & Wojtaszczyk, 2008). So an effective use of humor can dramatize or strengthen risk and health messages by reinforcing bonds and shared meaning with receivers.

Clear practical functions of humor in communication emerge, then, along with the ineffable mystery of the humor experience. Ego involvement and perceived impact of an issue on the self no doubt play some role (Sherif et al., 1965), but so do other aspects of personality, context, and situation. So often, the latter factors are crucial and spoil the neat efficient categories one may set up as theories to explain humor, or even its functions. Yet the humor functions as laid out on their continuum from highly uniting with identification and clarification functions to enforcement and the highly divisive differentiation function let communicators know what kind of humor they may try to employ—along with what kind of function the humor may eventually serve for hearers of the message. Humor adds to the challenges already surrounding messages about potentially dangerous topics about individual health and potential risks, yet its successful use dramatically increases understanding and persuasion of others regarding such issues.

Message Strategy and Design Using Humor

Humor should be used in messages relating to risks or health, but with discretion. Too much humor may lead to the assumption that the communicator is not serious about the topic, and the message will be discounted as entertainment rather than asking for serious action. The non–bona fide aspect of humorous communication will override the intended bona fide message. Alternatively, the receiver may be offended by the sense that health or risk concerns are not taken seriously enough to warrant a serious response and respond in the tragic mode. Also, for one in the tragic mode, too little humor included may seem like a lame attempt at a distraction from the serious message.

A solid use of humor can frame a health or risk message to lighten its tone and reduce the weight of the common fear appeal wrapped up in most messages regarding risk or health. Fear appeals can cause receivers to avoid a message and tune it out, while invoking humor can capture attention while also mitigating fear appeals and balancing them with a sense of efficacy. The ability to laugh at a subject engenders a sense of distance and objectivity regarding that topic. This enhanced perspective, removing a topic from a sense of immediate or overwhelming danger, can lead to a belief that ways will be found to cope with and handle the object of fear. Dealing with risks, especially to one’s health, becomes more feasible when a broader perspective is obtained on the topic, and laughing at such topics shows a capacity to entertain multiple views on them and allows for multiple ways to potentially deal with them.

The use of wit, or sarcastic humor, in risk messages is fraught with the danger of seeming to put down someone who is in the throes of worry or ego-involved in the perceived object of danger. Yet, ignorance of a subject can be mocked even as an audience is educated on that object of risk, thereby becoming “in the know” and willing to laugh at the ignoramus. One mid-20th-century television ad involved showing how sneezing into a handkerchief and putting that handkerchief into a bowl of disinfectant could prevent the spread of germs. People were invited to laugh at the spectacle of an older gentleman realizing the real use of a handkerchief—preventing the spread of germs rather than as a fashion statement—along with being told not to drink a bowl of disinfectant but to immerse the handkerchief into it. Through watching such a message, it was hoped, people would also feel superior to the ignorant gentleman and laugh along with the message—even while being educated about prevention of germ spread. Even simpletons should understand this message, it was implied, so laughing at those who do not was viewed as acceptable. The danger of using sarcastic or superiority humor, though, is assuming one’s receiver understands and buys into your argument, rather than being truly ignorant of or in disagreement with the recommendation. Then such attempts at humor simply reinforce anger at mocking a serious subject or feeling made fun of rather than enlightened.

Other health and risk warnings seek to invoke relief humor. These work to lighten up the mood of the message and humanize both sender and receiver. Laughing together at an issue shows a shared perspective on a risky issue and facilitates further discussion regarding preventing or coping with a risk. A doctor may precede serious discussion of a disease, for example, by joking about something relating to the situation both are in—waiting for test results, for instance, or aspects of the medical or health situation that both are familiar with. This humor, once shared, can enhance discussion about facts of the case, its dangers, and actions that can be taken to prevent or mitigate it. The natural ego involvement people feel in risky or health-endangering situations can be mitigated through humor. The sense of efficacy can also be increased, because if one laughs at something, one can find more creative ways to deal with it. The increased objectivity about a situation inherent in laughing about it is reinforced by a mutual sharing of laugher that leads both parties to see that “we can talk freely about this.”

Hospitals and doctor’s offices have realized that humor can help to cope with and discuss risk and bad health situations. Some purposely work on ways to spice up their communication with humor, and hospitals will establish “humor rooms” or promote clowns or comics touring the halls and rooms. The ability to laugh in situations of risk or hardship is found to make people healthier and more able to cope (DuPre, 1998). It can also help further understanding of an issue of risk or health without the tendency to tune out scary messages or a sense of excessive risk. Students of the first author, for instance, once chose to alter a typical presentation on the dangers and effects of sexually transmitted infections by enacting them anthropomorphically. Each student played the part of an individual STI, having a conversation with others involving statements like, “Well, guess how I get to infect somebody? . . . Then here’s what I do to them . . . If they’re not careful, here’s how I get around . . . You can be cured? Guess what! I can’t be! I get to infect them forever . . .” This dialogue provided humor from the unexpected notion of STIs conversing with one another and describing what they do, while at the same time informing the audience about true characteristics of STIs. Education happened along with some attention-getting effects enhanced by the humor.

In sum, joking in the context of health and risk messages makes them more attended to and more palatable in terms of a sense of objectivity in reception and enhanced efficacy for doing something about the issue at hand. Especially after a relationship is established between communicators, that relationship can be relied upon and enhanced to reduce the defenses put up by fear and sense of lacking efficacy that can accompany messages about risks and health. A doctor who becomes frustrated with a patient who will not stop smoking or otherwise reduce a risky behavior might suddenly respond, “Well, go ahead and die, then,” or “Well, we could just give up on you.” Such a harsh message might backfire without the background of a friendly and caring relationship, but the shock and incongruity that provides for humor in such messages can be just the thing to get someone to pay attention and, for once, not tune out the message due to exorbitant fear or inappropriately low sense of efficacy. Humor is outstanding for gaining attention and enhancing a less ego-involved and more objective take on an issue, helping people to more dispassionately assess and respond to messages involving risks or ways to enhance health.

Further Reading

  • Apte, M. (1985). Humor and laughter: An anthropological approach. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

A nice treatment of humor use and its cultural and social effects.

  • Martin, R. A. (2007). The psychology of humor: An integrative approach. Burlington, MA: Elsevier.

Extremely thorough coverage of humor perception, use, and individual and social effects. Summarizes richly research especially from a psychological perspective.

  • Meyer, J. C. (2000). Humor as a double-edged sword: Four functions of humor in communication. Communication Theory, 10, 310–331.

An oft-cited concise summary of the key social functions of humor in communication.

  • Meyer, J. C. (2015). Understanding humor through communication: Why be funny, anyway? Lanham, MD: Lexington.

A review of research on humor’s influence and functions of communication through the years.

  • Morreall, J. (1983). Taking laughter seriously. Albany: State University of New York Press.

A classic exploration of the basic humor definition, theories, and social functions.

  • Ulmer, R. R., Sellnow, T. L., & Seeger, M. W. (2007). Effective crisis communication: Moving from crisis to opportunity. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Exploration of how communication can be effective or ineffective in times of crises.


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