You probably remember you elementary or high-school class clown—constantly seeking attention, the person rarely missed an opportunity to make a wisecrack, often at someone else’s expense (preferably the teacher’s). One would hope that class clowns eventually grow out of this juvenile phase, but what if maturity fails to bring the wisdom and humility that would lead them away from their center-stage grabbing phase?
Fast forward from the classroom to the office, family gathering, or other everyday settings. Perhaps known by a different name (maybe “wise guy” or “bad boy (or girl)," the grown-up class clown is the one who constantly interrupts meetings with sarcastic commentary, puns, or even a prank or two on a coworker. At a family gathering, this is the person you can always count on to make fun of anyone who commits a social gaffe (like spilling a cup of soda) or even creates the situation that leads to the gaffe (by poking a hole in the bottom of that cup).
There are endless episodes you can probably recall from your own experience in which you were pranked by a grown-up class clown, interrupted while trying to accomplish a serious goal, or irritated when you had to wait for the person to settle down so you could get on with the job at hand. Yet, as annoying as this behavior can be, its reinforcement goes on all the time. Despite our best efforts to ignore grown-up wisecrackers, many of us laugh at them or otherwise acknowledge their behavior in a way that makes it rewarding for them to continue. This sets up a cycle in which, even if only 10 percent of their jokes and pranks are laughed at, they still feel no incentive to stop.
There is surprisingly little research on grown-up class clowns, or even classroom class clowns. University of Zurich psychologist Willibald Ruch and colleagues (2014), in their paper, “Character Strengths of Class Clowns,” noted that it was nearly 40 years ago that the classic study was conducted on the behaviors, attitudes toward, and personality traits of nearly 100 eighth-graders who fit the "class clown" designation. These young jokesters tended to rate high on attention-seeking and unruliness (no surprise), but also on leadership and cheerfulness. And while they tended to accomplish less than non-clown classmates (no surprise), they also saw themselves as high on leadership traits.
In adulthood, as reported by Ruch et al., class clowns become known as “wits” or “organizational fools.” They are more likely to be male, group leaders, active, independent, and high in self-esteem. Groups containing wits, rather than becoming less productive (due to the disruptive behavior of the wits), were actually higher in morale, more task-oriented, and better at problem-solving.
Ruch and colleagues decided to compare the “type” approach to studying class clowns (identifying a category who fits the criterion) to the “variable” approach, in which they identify dimensions of class clowning and see who is high and who is low on each dimension. Their study focused on 10-to-18-year-olds, and so while it is not directly pertinent to the issue of the adult wit, we can nevertheless derive useful ideas to apply to the class clown in adulthood.
People who consider themselves class clowns readily identify themselves as such. The Ruch et al. study showed that those who self-identify are also seen by others as fitting the definition. In addition, there are clusters of class clown behaviors on the “Class Clown Behavior Scale” used in the study that you may see in yourself or in people you know:
1. Being expected to be funny.
As teens, class clowns develop an identity of themselves as people who take on a certain role in the group. This identity may drive their behavior as adults to continue to conform to this expectation.
2. Having low impulse control.
Teens are lower in impulse control than adults in general, but class clowns are even lower than their peers. As adults, though, they tend to blurt out their comments (often in the form of jokes) and are unable to resist pulling pranks on friends, colleagues, and family members.
3. Challenging authority.
The questionnaire measure given to the teens asked them to indicate whether or not they took their teacher seriously. The adult clown, by extension, would be the person who makes jokes about what the boss (or other group leader) is communicating. The adult class clown also may be likely to make jokes behind the group leader’s back. And the adult class clown also believes that rules are meant to be broken.
4. Feeling proud about their sense of humor.
Not only do class clowns think others expect them to be funny, but they also believe themselves to be pretty funny. Again, this may have become part of the identity they developed in their earlier years. They’re reinforced for this because, as one item of the scale items states: “During class, it does not take long until my humor draws all attention of my classmates on me.”
In analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of teen class clowns, Ruch and colleagues found that, objectively, they do seem to be funny and this gives them a certain status in the class. In some cases, their humor may be productive in stimulating a positive learning environment. They tend to be in a good mood, which, additionally, helps spread cheer to others. However, balancing this are the tendencies of class clowns to become visible opponents of whoever is in charge, or to be the “subversive jokers” who surreptitiously go against the group leader.
The “signature strength” of the class clown is humor. However, to be used to positive effect, humor must be balanced with prudence and at least some restraint. Although humor is positively linked to life satisfaction and well-being, as shown in other studies, when used in inappropriate settings, humor has a set of negative associations. The disruptive, rule-breaking class clown in particular is lower in such strengths as life engagement and the experience of “flow.”
Humor can be used to promote a sense of humanity, as when people see the light side of situations and enjoy making others smile. However, when the humor is mean-spirited, the adult class clown fails to promote the good of the group and ultimately feels less engaged with life.
In summary: If you know a grown-up class clown, or are one yourself, consider both the factors that drive this behavior and its consequences. Humor can be used to promote a sense of fulfillment and connection with others when, as Ruch and colleagues note, it is balanced with temperance, humanity, and a desire to pursue productive goals.
Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015
Ruch, W., Platt, T., & Hofmann, J. (2014). The character strengths of class clowns. Frontiers In Psychology, 5