Is It OK to Joke About Coronavirus? Science Weighs In

New research provides insight into the science of dark humor and COVID-19.

Posted Jul 07, 2020

In 1972, George Carlin put on one of his most famous routines. He lambasted censorship and political correctness by carefully articulating the “The 7 words you can never say on TV.” Not so ironically, Carlin was proved correct when the routine led to a lawsuit against the station that aired it. 

Carlin was a comedy pioneer, and he was far from the last comedian to veer material into taboo waters. Indeed, one could argue that comedy itself has a way of pushing boundaries. As comedic legend Dave Chappelle has said, “sometimes you have to cross the line to find the line.” 

This may be no more true than in times of tragedy and hardship. 2020 is certainly no stranger to these. As we find ourselves in the grip of a deadly global pandemic, we can’t help asking: Is it OK to joke about COVID-19

Thanks to new research from The Center of Neurocognition and Theoretical Syntax at University School for Advanced Studies IUSS Pavia in Italy, we can turn to science for some guidance.  
 

Probing the Psychology of Dark Humor During COVID-19

This new pre-print, authored by Dr. Paolo Canal, Dr. Luca Bischetti, and Dr. Valentina Bambini, is based on responses to COVID related humor during the height of the pandemic. Specifically, the data was collected between March 18th and March 30th, 2020, two weeks into Italy’s nationwide lockdown. 

The work leverages the unique situation a pandemic provides for dark humor. As one of the lead authors, Dr. Paolo Canal describes, 

“Every disaster poses very different threats that probably determine the way we can make fun of them: for 9/11 and other violent events humor would easily sound gruesome or taboo... But for Covid-19, the threat may be continuous but less intense for many, those who did not closely experience any personal loss...the emergency collectively had a major impact on behavior (putting the mask on, doing the line entering shops, and so on) and social habits (distancing, changes in the job routine), for everyone in the world.”

Frank Busch via UnSplash
Participants were asked to rate their responses to humorous stimuli
Source: Frank Busch via UnSplash

To investigate perceptions of COVID-19 humor, the study collected data from over 1,700 participants, based in Italy and recruited online. They were provided with a series of pre-selected Internet jokes from Facebook and other online sources. These jokes were COVID-19 related or not. Participants rated each joke on a 7-point scale for aversiveness (0 = not at all disturbing; 6 = very disturbing), as well as for funniness (0 = not at all funny; 6 = very funny). Participants also took a brief personality assessment and filled out demographic information. 

The Geography and Personality of Dark Humor Appreciation

The results indicate that while COVID and non-COVID humor were equally funny, COVID jokes were perceived as being far more aversive, even compared to other forms of dark humor. 

Also, physical distance and perceived risk had a large influence as well. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people who perceived their risk of infection as being higher found COVID jokes much more aversive. Along similar lines, people found COVID related humor funnier the further they were from major epicenters of the contagion. 

The most consistent findings had to do with examining who found COVID jokes funny. 

The more optimistic someone is, the more likely they are to find COVID jokes humorous. And in addition, people who are more likely to use humor as a coping mechanism were much more likely to enjoy COVID-related jokes. These individuals found them both funnier, and less averse.  

 Tim Mossholder via UnSplash
The findings indicated that the appeal of COVID-19 humor was tied to specific personality traits
Source: Tim Mossholder via UnSplash

Speaking about these findings, Canal remarked, “It is surprising that people seem to look for the humorous side of the Covid-19 emergency, and that the emotional reactions to it, especially how disturbing we may think it is, depend on several factors, from one’s own personal use of humor to how close the threat is judged.”

This research extends our understanding of the psychology of dark humor more generally. Previous work has found that an appreciation of dark humor is closely associated with education levels and intelligence. This may reflect the fact that the processing of dark humor requires more cognitive processing. While other forms of humor represent a visceral, automatic response, an appreciation of dark humor requires the integration of semantic knowledge. 

This work as well found that dark humor appreciation varies depending on education level. However, Canal is quick to point out that “education level is a demographic factor which may be associated with higher intelligence, but may also be associated with a constellation of other factors that could explain the findings: there may be differences in political views, socio-economic status, or even age.”
 

Dark Humor as a Psychological Coping Mechanism

These findings do, however, add to a growing literature suggesting that enjoyment of dark humor may act as a defense mechanism against negative emotions associated with tragic events. While causality cannot be inferred, recall that enjoyment of COVID-19 humor was closely associated with optimism. And while the current results didn’t make any therapeutic measurements, this finding is in line with previous research indicating that humor can serve as a reliable coping mechanism in dealing with negative emotions and events.

Azamat Kinzhitayev on Unsplash
For certain people, humor can be a coping mechanism in response to trying times
Source: Azamat Kinzhitayev on Unsplash

As the research argues, the enjoyment of COVID-19 humor could “down-regulate the negative feelings and mitigate the stress induced by outbreak.” Further work will be needed to fully address the therapeutic value of COVID-19 humor. 

As Canal remarks, “If one can make humor about a tragedy he/she may be able to control their emotions about it...even people who are sentenced to death make fun of themselves in their last hours... the so-called gallows humor. So while it may not change the course of events, it may help morale.”

In 2020, that might be all we can hope for. 

This post originally appeared on the consumer behavior blog PopNeuro.

References

Bischetti, L., Canal, P., & Bambini, V. (2020, May 4). Funny but aversive: A large-scale survey on the emotional response to Covid-19 humor in the Italian population during the lockdown. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/efk93

Canal, P. (2020, June 19). Personal correspondence

Phillips, C. (2017, April). COMEDIANS TALK ABOUT PUSHING BOUNDARIES AND CROSSING LINES, PBS: Independent Lens

Robinson, C. (2020). Dave Chappelle: The Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, USA: Netflix

Willinger, U., Hergovich, A., Schmoeger, M. (2017) Cognitive and emotional demands of black humour processing: the role of intelligence, aggressiveness and mood. Cogn Process 18, 159–167