Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Benefits of Laughing Through a Crisis

A fascinating case of humor in the Federal Open Market Committee meetings.

Key points

  • Humor helps individuals elevate their perspective and cope with difficult situations.
  • In groups, humor can also enhance interpersonal bonds, reduce anxiety, and increase productivity and cohesion.
  • Humor in FOMC meetings changed in the critical period before and after the market crash in August 2007.
  • An increase in affiliative humor supported the functioning of the group during the financial crisis.

The positive psychology framework classifies humour as a form of transcendence. This classification may seem strange at first glance, but it makes a lot of sense. Humour often helps us as individuals to elevate our perspective and cope with difficult situations and sources of stress.

A recent paper by Boydstun and colleagues (2023) argues that humor can also help work groups in times of crisis. Summarising available research, they note that humorous events often elicit laughter and emotional contagion that creates shared positive affect, which in turn increases the chances of subsequent funny events. Over time, groups can develop a humor-friendly climate that enhances interpersonal bonds, mitigates threat-induced anxiety, increases a sense of control, and enhances productivity and cohesion. In intensive knowledge-sharing work environments, humour can also be important in the moment-to-moment unfolding of teamwork deliberation dynamics, as it can provide group members with emotional space to figure out their next steps in complex action sequences.

Different types of humor can evolve when people come together and develop as a working group. For example, Boydstun points to an earlier study by Terrion and Ashforth (2002) which examined the development of humour in a group of Canadian police recruits undergoing training. Over time, the police recruits shifted from expressing individualized self-deprecating humour to expressing a group-oriented form of affiliative humour that involved the use of collective put-downs that actually worked to reinforce bonds of trust and solidarity in the group.

In their study, Boydstun and colleagues look at the fascinating case of humor and its change dynamics in the U.S. Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meetings. FOMC, a group comprised of 19 members, is a branch of the U.S. Federal Reserve charged with safeguarding U.S. market operations by controlling interest rates and the monetary supply. The group met 41 times between 2005 and 2008 in the critical periods before and after the market crash that began in August 2007. Boydstun and colleagues analysed all meeting transcripts from 2005 to 2008 for instances of laughter. They identified a total of 977 instances, which they further coded by reference to the different types of humor being used on each occasion. They also analysed the context in which these different types of humor occurred in an effort to understand the dynamic.

Unsurprisingly, they found that the use of humor in FOMC meetings tended to rise and fall in tandem with marketplace conditions, including an expected drop in humor associated with the onset of the financial crash of 2007. However, the use of humour did not cease completely. Rather, the unfolding of the financial crash resulted in a reduction in the use of self-enhancing humor and a relative increase in the use of affiliative humor (from 54% pre-crash to 62% post-crash). Importantly, there was also a significant increase in the relative use of playful banter, from 31% to 35%, and also gallows humor, which more than doubled from 2% before the crash to over 5% post-crash.

Further analysis of transcripts revealed how members appeared to use playful banter directed at one another as a way to ease stress, support compromise, and strengthen bonds between members. This included lighthearted exchanges with humorous insults (e.g., related to regional rivalries) and playful compliments (e.g., on how kind or brilliant another member is), and it sometimes involved a running thread of banter which seemed to create a more relaxed atmosphere and facilitate productive discussions around the complex issues at hand. A qualitative analysis further revealed the important role that the FOMC chair played in infusing committee meetings with humor, directing their humor toward individual group members in a way that transcended job titles and hierarchy levels. At the same time, humor coming from other group members was instrumental in supporting the overall affiliative dynamic.

Interestingly, conference call meetings had less laughter compared to in-person meetings, which serves to highlight the importance of face-to-face meetings in supporting humor.

Boydstun and colleagues conclude by noting the importance of humor as a flexible tool that work groups can use to strengthen cohesion in good times and in bad. Based on the available literature and their study findings, they recommend that group leaders make use of positive, affiliative humor as a way to foster positive interaction between group members and stabilize group dynamics during changes in membership and in times of crisis. They also propose that followers in groups should not wait for the leader to initiate a joke that may foster positive feelings or trust but rather take the initiative and engage in affiliative humor themselves.

One particularly valuable aspect of this study is that it reveals the context-specific and subjective nature of humor in group situations (the outside reader may not find any of the jokes very funny). The analysis also reveals humor as one small but important ingredient in a much more complex dialogical process (i.e., the prevalence of serious discussion and deliberation far outweighs brief moments of laughter in the transcripts).

The researchers close by noting that the world faces many complex problems that require collaboration between experts and across domains, and in these situations, effective communication in work groups is crucial. Humor is an important tool in the work group’s communication toolbox, and more research is needed to understand how humor functions in groups—in particular, says Boydstun, the conditions under which humor supports healthy collaborative experiences that enhance the capability of groups to benefit society.

It is surprising how little experimental research has been conducted in this area of humour and collaboration dynamics, but Boydstun and colleagues do an excellent job of pointing the way forward.


Boydstun, A. E., Wallach, H., Young, D. G., & Allen, J. A. (2023). The Role of Humor in Work Group Dynamics in Times of Crisis. Small Group Research.

More from Michael Hogan Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today