Humor is a ubiquitous and complex phenomenon. People have pondered its nature and meaning at least since they were able to write. Humor has been analyzed at work (Meyer, 1997), at home (Lingon, 1996), in children (Sullivan, Winner, & Hopfield, 1995), and in the elderly (Richman, 1995). Different levels of analysis have included the individual (Zhang, 1996), group (Pollio & Bainum, 1983), organizations (Barsoux, 1996), and society (Preuschoft & van Hooff, 1997). There has been research on humor producers (Fisher & Fisher, 1981), humor appreciators (Lefcourt & Martin, 1986), the butts of jokes (Saper, 1991), and bystanders (Lundberg, 1969). Humor has been investigated as an aspect of public speaking (Finerman, 1997), especially for senior executives (Kushner, 1990), politicians (Sergeant, 1997), and as a tool of subversion (Jenkins, 1994).

Research into humor (Kruger, 1996) and its creation (Koestler, 1964) has been balanced with research about laughter (Holmes, 1996) and its effects (Graham, Papa, & Brooks, 1992). Theoretical discussions (Durant & Miller, 1988; Raskin, 1987) have been balanced with practical advice (Carter, 1989; McGhee, 1994; Sankey, 1998). Although most scholars attracted to this field are pro-humor, some have written about the dangers of humor (Fitzgerald, 1988; Graf & Hemmasi, 1995; Hemmasi, Graf, & Russ, 1994; Kubie, 1971; Smeltzer & Leap, 1988).

There are some large and helpful bibliographies (Goldstein & McGhee, 1972a; Nilsen, 1993; Rutter, 1998). Yet, for all of this investigation, there is no general theory of humor or even an agreed definition.

Here is the entry in one dictionary under humor (Merrian-Webster, 1995).

1a) A normal functioning body semifluid or fluid.
1b) A secretion or a hormone that is an excitant of activity.

2a) A fluid or juice of an animal or plant.
2b) Characteristic or habitual disposition.
2c) An often temporary state of mind.
2d) A suddenly increasing inclination, whim.<

3a) That quality which appeals to a sense of the ludicrous.
3b) The mental faculty of appreciating the ludicrous.
3c) Something that is designed to be comical or amusing.

The first pair of meanings (1) refers to the medical use of the term humor to denote a bodily fluid such as aqueous humor. That meaning is of historical importance.

The word derives from the Latin umor meaning moisture or fluid. People are comprised largely of water and other fluids. In the Middle Ages, doctors theorized that people were comprised of four specific fluids that were referred to simply as the humors. Having a good balance of these fluids was thought to lead to good temperament (good humor). Sanguine people (with an excess of red blood) were thought to be excessively confident and optimistic. Phlegmatic people (with an excess of white phlegm) were thought to be stolid, sluggish and inclined to be rather dull. Choleric people (with an excess of yellow bile) were thought to be fiery, hot-tempered, irascible, and vindictive (cranky babies are still called cholicky). Melancholy people (with too much black bile; a substance that doesn't really exist) were thought to be extremely dejected, and prone to both nightmares and protracted anger (McGhee, 1971, pp. 4-5).

Because a balance of these humors was thought to be the source of good health and temperament, any attempt to put people into a good mood came to be known as humoring them. Later, any material that was used by a humorist to create good feelings came to known as humor. Thus the use of the word gradually evolved. At first, it referred to a physical substance inside the body. Then it came to refer to mood or temperament, which we would think of today as mental. Finally, it came to refer to the stimuli for humorous feelings, such as jokes and cartoons. To this day, definitions of humor are bedeviled by this ambiguity about whether its essence is to be found in the stimulus itself or in our response to it (Chapman & Foot, 1976, p. 3).

The second set of dictionary meaning speaks of humor in a wide variety of senses: as a fluid (2a), as a disposition (2b), a mood (2c) and a whim (2d). It is not these senses of the word that are central to humor research. Humor research does not focus on whether people are in a good or foul humor, but rather on how they got that way. It investigates funniness, as in seeing the humor in something (3a), the sense of humor (3b), and the stimuli or triggers for humor (3c).

Subjective versus Objective

Some writers have offered very subjective definitions of humor such as that certain psychological state which tends to produce laughter (Veatch, 1998). In an oft-quoted phrase from Love's Labour Lost, Shakespeare has Rosaline (a minor character, attending the princess) say, in passing, A jest's popularity lies in the ear of him who hears it, never in the tongue of him who makes it. This phrase is often quoted in the support of the view that humor is in the eye of the beholder. Amy Carrell, a professor of English, seems to take this perspective. She has characterized humor (referring to jokes, specifically) as that sense of amusement that is generated within the hearer or receiver of the joke text, if the joke is successful (Carrell, 1997, p. 174).

Subjective definitions of humor are important because they drive home the point that only an observer (a mind) can recognize something as humorous. However, definitions that locate the essence of humor wholly within that observer disagree with our common sense understanding of the word. In a book of college humor, for example, one would expect to find a series of jokes and cartoons (stimuli) about college life. These stimuli would probably be categorized as humor, or at least attempted humor, even if no one found them funny.

As another example of the common sense meaning of the term humor, people sometimes say that they can see the humor in something. Sometimes just the form of an utterance identifies it as humor (Attardo, 1994). Although an observer may be necessary to perceive humor, surely that humor must already be there in order to be perceived. In a similar way, although an observer may be necessary to notice the color red, no one would mistakenly claim that the color red is a subjective phenomenon. It can easily be detected with a light frequency meter.

At the other extreme, humor can be defined very objectively such as any message transmitted in action, speech, writing, images or music intended to produce a smile or a laugh (Bremmer & Roodenburg, 1997). This is a common understanding of the meaning of the word humor and accords with the final (3c) meaning found in the dictionary entry above. Victor Raskin, a professor of Linguistics, has characterized humor (again referring to jokes, specifically) in terms of text. He said that a joke has occurred when the text is compatible (in full or in part) with two different scripts, which are opposite in this particular discourse and which overlap (to some degree) in the text of the joke (Raskin, 1985).

Objective definitions of humor are important because they drive home the point that observers do not laugh at anything and everything. In fact, a majority of people laugh at the very same things, as evidenced by the existence of hit comedies and popular comedians. Just as the field of aesthetics challenges the notion that beauty is purely in the eye of the beholder, so the ability to train and prepare professional comedians and comedy writers challenges the notion that humor is purely subjective. However, definitions that locate the essence of humor wholly within the object seem to go too far.

Under Raskin's characterization, it appears that a joke text delivered in a forest (with no observer) would count as an instance of humor so long as it followed certain rules ofconstruction. Indeed, computers have been programmed to create punning riddles (Binsted & Ritchie, 1997) using rules. After running these programs, a human judge is employed to decide whether the results are funny, but the skill of the computer is improving over time. There seems to be some validity to objective characterizations of humor, but this understanding of its nature is so formal that one wonders what is uniquely human in the phenomenon.

Some definitions of humor strike more of a happy median. For example, James Beattie described it as the view of two or more inconsistent, unsuitable, or incongruous parts or circumstances, considered as united in one complex object or assemblage, or as acquiring a sort of mutual relation from the peculiar manner in which the mind takes notice of them [emphasis added] (1778). This definition introduces the idea that a true understanding of humor can only be found by focusing on both the incongruity of the stimulus and the perception process within an observer.

John Morreall, who has arguably done the most scholarly work that exists in the philosophy of humor, defined humor as enjoying incongruity (1989). Although there are critics of this definition (e.g., Martin, 1983), it is at once comprehensive and elegantly simple. It takes account of both the incongruity of the stimulus or object and the subjective participation of an observer. It also hints at the fact that an incongruity must seem safe and interesting to the observer if it is to be enjoyed.

Some definitions go even further to include broad situational factors. Howard Pollio proposed a field theory of humor that took into account such background factors as social relationships, safety to laugh, and expectations that could be violated. He wrote that the response of laughter was neither a strictly intellectual nor emotional one; rather it is a total person response to the specifics of a particular contemporary situation. (Pollio, 1983, p. 215). The idea of a field or context theory followed from earlier writings (e.g., Lewin, Lippitt, & White, 1939). Broad definitions of humor are important because they drive home the point that humor is a complex phenomenon. However, there would be little point in adopting a definition of humor so complex that it could not be understood any better than the phenomenon itself.

In general, definitions of humor vary from the objective to the subjective and from the simple to the complex. There is no agreed definition and there may be more distinctions that need to be made before the phenomenon can be fully understood or even identified reliably.


The Ancients took laughter as their subject matter, since the Greek and Latin terms for humor had not developed their current connotation. Although laughter is related to humor, and almost certainly relevant to any study of humor, and even though some studies even today fail to distinguish between laughter and humor, this author is convinced that laughter cannot properly be equated with humor.

Norm Holland marvels that the subtle mental event called humor can result in the spasms in the cheeks and belly called laughter (Holland, 1982). Although much laughter is indeed humorous or mirthful laughter, much is not. Laughter can be triggered by nervousness, tickling, nitrous oxide, deference to a speaker (Giles & Oxford, 1970) or even as a default response to an emotion to which no other response seems appropriate (Zemach, 1959). Sometimes laughter reflects nothing but cruel ridicule, without the clever mental twist that we would normally associate with humor. Clearly laughter can and does occur without humor.

On the other hand, humor quite often exists without laughter. Before there can be laughter, people must get the joke; including both understanding the meaning of any humorous communication and seeing the humor in an incongruity or word play. Beyond getting it, they must like the humor or find it amusing. Even if all of this occurs successfully, they still might not laugh aloud for any number of reasons. The humor may be of the gentle sort, as found in Reader's Digest, that does not trigger belly laughs. The listener's mood may be subdued for a wide variety of reasons, or the social context may be prohibitive of laughter (or of laughing at certain types of humor). Clearly humor can and does occur without laughter.

One can argue not only that laughter and humor cannot be equated, but also that they cannot be characterized as a simple Stimulus-Response relationship. Admittedly, when a baby is tickled, the laughter is a fairly direct response to a stimulus. However, in most cases, there seems to be an intervening phenomenon or mediator. For this discussion, it will be called mirth.

Three-Legged Stool


In this formulation, mirthful laughter is associated with humor while other laughter is not. Some authors would prefer the label amusement instead of mirth (Clark, 1987) and there is great debate about whether it is an emotion (Morreall, 1983; Sharpe, 1975). However, most writers would disagree with B. F. Skinner and assign a role to the affected organism in deciding whether and how to respond to the stimulus with laughter.

This distinction is helpful. It allows us to sort out different writings about humor and identify their subject matter. Much confusion exists in the literature when one writer talks about laughter while another talks about humor, or when writers accidentally oscillate between the two phenomena themselves. However, this formulation ignores important peripheral aspects such as the context in which humor is experienced and the effects that laughter (or other mirthful expressions) can have.

Figure 2 presents a somewhat richer depiction of the phenomenon that takes into account the inputs to and outputs from humor.

Considering the Context


Even this depiction of humor is incomplete in two ways. First, the internal processing of a humor stimulus that may lead to mirth is neglected. As mentioned above, before responding positively to a humor stimulus, an observer must (a) understand what is being said, (b) get the unusual twist or incongruity that is being offered, and (c) enjoy it. The first stage relies on clear communication, intelligent listening, and sufficient shared context. The second stage relies on good delivery by the humorist and a sense of humor in the observer. The third stage relies on the receiver's mood and appreciation of humor. Of course, the first stage is a routine requirement of all communication that is not unique to humor, but the other two do seem to be specific to the phenomenon. For that reason, they should probably be spelled out in a characterization of humor.

The second way in which the figure is incomplete is that it presents the context as though it were a pre-existing and static element. In fact, the context is far more complex than this. Whenever a humor stimulus occurs in any setting, the context is changed by that stimulus. As people react to the stimulus in various ways, the context is changed once again. In fact, the effects that will ultimately ensue from any humorous event will be due as much to the context created as they will to the humor stimulus itself. Thus the context is really a grounding that underlies the entire model and changes fluidly as the model plays itself out.

Multiple Dynamic Contexts

(C1) >> Stimulus >> (C2) >> Cognitive/Emotional >> (C3) >> Laughter >> (C4)

In Figure 3, an attempt is made to address these issues. First there is a pre-existing context (C1), in which the humor stimulus must be understood and seen as funny. This is the shared understanding that is required, if the humor is to work correctly. Then there is a changed context (C2) due to the humor stimulus. Once someone makes a joke or otherwise introduces humor, the context is thereby changed. In this new context, two separate humor processes occur. First, the receiver does or does not get the joke, shown in Figure 3 as a Cognitive processing. Second, the receiver does or does not like the joke, shown in Figure 3 as Emotional processing.

It is a matter for the James-Lange versus Cannon-Baird debate in the discipline of psychology to consider whether finding something funny is an emotional response to a cognition, a cognitive rationalization of an emotion, or some combination of the two. However, the results of that processing (which may include mirth) will change the context again, creating C3. Depending on several factors in that context, the observer may or may not laugh or smile or express mirth in some other way. Whatever expression or non-expression of mirth occurs will again change the context, introducing C4 and completing the cycle for one instance of humor.

Quite often, this instance of humor will immediately instigate another one. The effects of that second instance of humor cannot be fully understood without acknowledging the cumulative effects of sequential instances of humor.

Recent research suggests that laughter may be more than just a simple expression of mirth. Robert Latta's process theory (1998), for example, and a recent collection of scientific notes by Robert Provine (2000), both develop the notion that laughter may play an more active part in the process of humor. Marvin Minsky (1984) suggests that humor is a protective mechanism to interrupt unproductive thinking. If so, then literally giving the body a shake through laughter may be an integral part of that process.

However, the above characterization is individualistic and ignores the involvement of other people. Although it will be argued later that humor is not necessarily a social event, and is really an individual phenomenon, it has to be granted that there are usually others involved in humorous interaction. Especially in the workplace, humor is most often interpersonal and it is very important to be aware of who is occupying what role in the process.

Humorous Interaction

Sigmund Freud noted that joking involved several participants. He assigned them roles and named them with terms that have been translated as raconteur, butt, and audience (Freud, 1928). Sven Svebak (1974) thought of this in a very similar way, using the labels humorist (for raconteur), target (for butt), and audience.

This sort of distinction was reflected in Craig Lundberg's four analytical categories of individuals involved in person-focused joking behavior (Lundberg, 1969). His first category was called the initiator (the one who tells the joke or points out the humorous situation). The second was called the target (the intended audience of the joke). The third was called the focus (the individual being ridiculed or suggested as funny). The final category was called publics (people who could observe or overhear the joking, but were not its intended receivers). All of these concepts are helpful in thinking about person-focused joking behavior and, after all, most humor is interpersonal.

Tom Dwyer started with a similar idea. He used the term initiator in the same way that Lundberg did, while defining target quite differently and introducing the term audience. For Dwyer, the target was the person who was the object of the laughter produced by the joke ... the object of the joke. (Dwyer, 1991). This seems to be the same entity referred to by Lundberg as the focus of the joke. (In this research, the term object will be adopted to refer to this entity.) Dwyer used the word audience to refer to the group that Lundberg called the target. He defined a joke as successful when an audience responded to the initiator with laughter. We can quibble about the need for laughter, but the general idea (that different roles must be played to get the job done) seems to be sound.

Using this multi-participant model of humorous interaction, Dwyer went on to apply Ted Caplow's (Caplow, 1968) triad theory. Dwyer argued that, in an important sense, an initiator and an audience enter into a coalition against the target. Using triad theory to predict who would align with whom, he was able to explain some of the power dimensions of joking relationships noted earlier by anthropologists (e.g., Radcliffe-Brown, 1940) and paved the way for future researchers looking at the ethics of humor in the workplace.

A Characterization of Humor

Pulling this research together, the following characterization of humor can be offered. As illustrated in Figure 4, humor involves at least three elements: someone or something that is ridiculous or laughable (the object), someone who points this out (the intitiator), and someone who agrees that it is funny (the appreciator).

Humorous Interaction


However, there are two issues to clarify. First, this characterization seems to (wrongly) suggest that no humor can occur unless there are three separate people involved. Second, it seems to (wrongly) suggest that it can only be applied to person-focused joking, in which a person serves as the object of the humor, or the butt of the joke.

In fact, it is not necessary that there be three different persons involved. When people use self-effacing humor, they are serving as both the initiator and the object at the same time (ridiculing themselves). When people happily endure mild teasing from friends, they are serving as both the object and the appreciator at the same time (enjoying their own victimization). When people smile or laugh privately at some humorous observation they have made, they are acting as both the initiator and appreciator at the same time (enjoying themselves). In all of these examples, two people are sufficient to fulfill all the roles proposed above as being necessary for an instance of humor. Further, suppose someone who is all alone trips and spills some small items on the floor, finds it funny, and laughs aloud (enjoying their own folly). In this example, one person has been sufficient to fulfill all three of the roles proposed as necessary for humor. Thus the characterization in Figure 4 does not require that humor involve three people, or even that it be a social event at all.

On the second point, the role of the object (butt, laughing stock, prey, patsy, fall guy, victim) of the humor need not be played by a person. Although superiority theory from the 17th Century (discussed below) suggests that we usually laugh at the infirmities of others, Bain (1888) extended that theory to include ideas, political institutions, and inanimate objects as targets of ridicule (Keith-Spiegel, 1972, p. 7).

In fact, introspection suggests that this role is, in fact, rarely played by a person. In most cases the object of the humor is not a person per se, but rather some laughable characteristic of that person. One might make fun of someone's pomposity, thrift, naivety, or large nose. One can rarely raise a laugh by simply mentioning a particular person. Thus clarified, the above characterization can be seen to apply to many types of humor, whether interpersonal or not.

So we have seen that the characterization of humorous interaction in Figure 4 is broad enough to include private humor and non-personal humor. But does that characterization represent the essentials of humor? Do all instances of humor include an initiator, an object, and an appreciator?

It is proposed here that both an object of humor and an amused appreciator are essential to humor. When people are laughing at nothing at all (literally), we characterize their behavior as pathological. There must be some sort of object of humor, even if we don't find it funny, before an event can count as an instance of humor. Thus a stimulus of some sort (object of humor) seems essential to the concept of humor.

What about an amused appreciator? Can an incongruous event that occurs without any observer be considered an instance of humor? Arguably, one could formally identify incongruities in an event, without an observer having been on the scene at the time. (One could retroactively analyze text, for example.) However, one could not tell whether the audience found the event sufficiently incongruous to be noticed and yet not so incongruous as to be confusing or frightening. To know whether the event was funny at the time, one would have to consult the subjective response of an actual participant - an appreciator. Thus it seems that both an object and an appreciator are essential for humor.

However, the initiator may not be essential. One can notice an object of humor and find it funny, without the intervention of any initiator. As a matter of fact, in most cases, that is exactly how the initiator experienced the humor in the first place. Although initiators are ubiquitous in interpersonal humor, and are the ones who get credit for it, they do not seem essential to humor's existence. Furthermore, in the case of a popular comedian for example, the initiator is often not even the creator of the humor. Writers behind the scenes create the humor, and warm-up comics and ushers create a responsive audience. Ironically, the comedian who receives the acclaim and the large paycheck may be a fairly minor participant in the actual humorous interaction.

There are also peripheral participants in humorous interaction. In the case of a staged performance, there is usually an unseen humor creator or writer preparing the humor that the host or star seems to initiate (Fry Jr. & Allen, 1975). There are also bystanders who may overhear humor and be affected by it (for better or worse) even when they are not the intended audience; the group that Lundberg (1969) refers to as publics.

In summary, then, humor occurs when a stimulus successfully triggers mirth and may or may not elicit an expression such as laughter in a complex and changing context. It involves the participation of (at least) an object and an appreciator, and often involves an initiator and others who may or may not be appreciative. What theories have been offered to try and explain this phenomenon?


More than 100 theories of humor have been identified (Schmidt & Williams, 1971). These notions include general theories about humor or laughter, statements of the circumstances in which humor may occur, and characterizations or descriptions. Several important reviews have been provided (Berlyne, 1969; Derks, 1996; Haig, 1988; Piddington, 1933; Sully, 1902) and these are heartily recommended to the reader new to this topic.

One very influential review is that of Patricia Keith-Spiegel (1972), who created a typology of eight categories. The first category consisted of biological theories (e.g., Darwin, 1872), which suggest that humor is an adaptive disposition. The second category consisted of superiority theories (e.g., Hobbes, 1968), which suggest that people laugh at others to whom they feel superior. The third category consisted of incongruity theories (e.g., Kant, 1951), which suggest that humor consists of incongruous events and situations. The fourth category consisted of surprise theories (e.g., Descartes, 1649), which suggest that humor requires suddenness and therefore weakens with repeated exposure. The fifth category consisted of ambivalence theories (e.g., Joubert, 1980) which suggest that humor is the result of opposing emotions or ideas within an appreciator. The sixth category consisted of release theories (e.g., Spencer, 1860), which suggest that humor is experienced when people are relieved from strain or stress. The seventh category consisted of configuration theories (e.g., Maier, 1932), which suggest that humor depends directly on the resolution of incongruities. The eighth category consisted of psychoanalytic theories (e.g., Freud, 1928), which suggest that humor results from economies of psychic energy that has been built up by and for repression.

It is proposed here that these myriad theories can be sorted further into just three groups. The first group (biological, psychoanalytic or relief, and ambivalence theories) consider the function of humor. They try to explain why we laugh and what survival value humor has. The second group (incongruity, surprise, and configuration theories) consider the stimuli for humor. They try to explain what makes funny things funny. The final group (superiority, and the newer cognitive theories) consider our response. They try to explain how and why we find things funny. This grouping will be adopted for the discussion of the theories that follows.

The Function of Humor

In this category of humor theories about the function of the phenomenon, release and relief theories such as Freud's prevail. However, there are also lesser known biological and evolutionary theories, and these will be discussed first. Many of these theories were developed before the distinctive use of the word humor evolved, so they tend to equate humor and laughter.

Has laughter evolved? Evolutionists from Charles Darwin (1872) to Glenn Weisfield (1993) have claimed that laughter is an adaptive behavior. As evidence, they point out that laughter is pervasive in humans, has a fairly early onset (16 weeks), and can be compared with similar behaviors found in related species. The most conclusive evidence for their claim would be the discovery of a specific neural structure or pathway for laughter. Recent work at UCLA Medical School (Fried, Wilson, MacDonald, & Behnke, 1998; Reese, 1998) may be instructive. Specific brain stimulations generated laughter in a patient. She subsequently attributed this laughter to various nearby items, which she insisted were funny. This sort of evidence about laughter makes us wonder if even humor isn't more programmed than we usually image.

However, laughter does not seem to appear in any other species. Laughter (like language) is only possible for those species that learn to walk on two legs (Provine, 1996). This is due to the difficulty of laughing, or speaking, while thumping around on all fours, something readers are encouraged to try for themselves.

Is humor just a special case of playing? It is generally thought (e.g., Aldis, 1975) that play allows young humans and other animals to rehearse and develop the physical and social skills they will need as adults. Paul McGhee (1979) has argued that humor may have evolved to allow rehearsal and development of the abstract skills that only humans seem to use. Others have argued that laughter allows release of the inevitable tension of living in civilization (e.g., Grumet, 1989) or that humor allows the fantasy and play that lead to new innovations and ways of coping (Christie, 1994). These explanations help us understand why laughter might have evolved uniquely in humans.

The interesting question for these theories is why laughter (or crying for that matter) should be adaptive. Laughter does not resolve problems or situations but instead seems to constitute an alternative to dealing with them. Generally, there are two theories about why laughter can be considered as adaptive.

Some writers have suggested that humor is adaptive because it operates like a circuit breaker, intentionally disabling people and preventing them from continuing misguided behavior patterns (Chafe, 1987). George Milner (1972) said that laughter breaks us up when we are being too extreme or taking ourselves too seriously. In a similar way, Marvin Minsky (1984) pointed out that laughter disrupts processing to reveal the absurdity of infinite regressions or other logical errors. Researchers at Leiden University Medical Center in The Netherlands found that laughter reduced the H-reflex (Ben-Ari, 1999). That reduction explained the weak in the knees feeling that often accompanies laughter. Gopalaswami (1926) assigned humor a place alongside other natural mechanisms to deal with unsurmountable attacks such as the urge to flee, the cry of appeal or submission, and consciousness-reduction (going into shock) or consciousness-abolition (fainting).

Others, in arguing for the adaptive nature of humor, have focused on the release and purging of emotions that occurs as a result of taking a humorous perspective. Laughter may have developed in humans as a biological mechanism for protecting them against excessive sympathy for the problems and misfortunes of others. William McDougall (1922) argued that the psychological burden of empathy would become unbearable without this outlet. The idea that humor prevents us from being overcome with (and disabledd by) emotions has strong intuitive appeal for this author, but has not received much testing or support in the literature to date.

The idea that there is an evolutionary basis for humor is supported by any evidence that humor is beneficial. Here are several beneficial effects of humor, based on a classification scheme developed by Don Nilsen (1993).


One benefit of humor is that it encourages laughter, which seems to have certain physiological benefits. One popular claim, that laughter releases endorphins (e.g.., Bond, 1998; Braverman, 1993; Brooks, 1999; Hulse, 1994; Lea, 1998; Nyhout, 1998; Rapaport & Gibson, 1993), enjoys no scientific support whatever. However, laughter does seem to provide health benefits of the sort that one would expect from jogging. It provides general benefits such as improved respiration (e.g., McGhee, 1998) and specific ones such as improved natural killer cell cytotosicity (Bennett, 1997) and increased levels of secretory immunoglobulin A (Perera, Sabin, Nelson, & Lowe, 1998). In fact, it has been found that laughter increases immunity better than relaxation (Burns, 1996).

Norman Cousins (1979) wrote the most-often-misunderstood testimonial to the health benefits of laughter. Even professionals occasionally claim that he was cured of cancer by laughter therapy. This claim is, of course, nonsense. The collagen disorder he suffered was indeed serious, and offered only a one in five hundred chance of remission. Cousins checked out of his hospital and stayed in a more cheery hotel room. He attributed his eventual remission to massive doses of vitamin C (five grams a day) and a liberal application of Candid Camera episodes and Laurel and Hardy movies.

Although he specifically denied that humor cured anything (Cousins, 1985), and repeatedly reminded his readers that he took every medicine prescribed by his doctors, Cousins did acknowledge that humor provided him with pain-free sleep and even reduced his sedimentation levels (an infection measure) almost as much as the Vitamin C.

Similar claims for the healing power of laughter are found in the writings of physicians and philosophers from the 13th to the 19th century (Goldstein & McGhee, 1972b). Modern research is focusing on documenting the effects of laughter on secretory levels (Kamei, Kumano, & Masumura, 1997; Lambert & Lambert, 1995; Martin & Dobbin, 1988; McClelland & Cheriff, 1997), although it is not yet clear to this author that there is anything about this effect that is unique to humor as against any other engaging emotion.

A second benefit of humor is noted by psychologists. The personality trait called a sense of humor seems to counteract stress (Newman & Stone, 1996) or at least moderate its harmful effects (Kuiper & Martin, 1998; Lefcourt & Thomas, 1998). It has been shown to be associated with positive personality characteristics such as optimism and self-esteem (Thorson, Powell, Sarmany-Schuller, & Hampes, 1997).

Laughter and humor have been found to benefit depressed patients (Thorson & Powell, 1994), people who are grieving (Keltner & Bonanno, 1997), and other clients of both psychotherapists (Chapman & Chapman-Santana, 1995) and psychologists (McGuire, 1999). The use of humor is being cautiously considered by psychoanalysts (Giovacchini, 1999) and has been associated with the capacity for regression in service of the ego (Sands, 1979). Some innovative forms of psycho-therapy such as Natural High Therapy (O'Connell, 1981) use and encourage the sense of humor in the treatment. A similar approach was prescribed by Alfred Adler as early as 1929 (Gomez, Gomez, & O'Connell, 1994). The perspective taken by a humorist is one of the detached observer, and it allows clients to consider responses to problems without being overwhelmed by them (Yonkovitz & Matthews, 1998). The use of humor also aids the therapist in challenging the perspectives of clients in cognitive behavioral therapy (Epstein, 1997).

A third benefit of humor is noted by sociologists and anthropologists. The sharing of laughter reflects tolerance, acceptance, and sympathy toward others (Mindess, 1971). Many authors speculate that laughter was originally a vocal sign to other members of the group that they could relax in safety after a perceived threat was vanquished or turned out to be non-threatening (e.g. Hayworth, 1928; Ramachandran, 1998). The ability of humor to build a sense of community (e.g., Hampes, 1992), and especially a diverse community in the workplace (Meyer, 1997), have been demonstrated. Understanding humor presupposes a shared context and this shared context is reinforced within many groups by the use of humor (Zilberg, 1995). Humor also acts as a social lubricant, as when humor is used to gently correct someone's manners while saving face for everyone involved.

Another benefit of humor is of the intellectual sort. The creation and appreciation of humor has long been associated with high intelligence (Galloway, 1994), problem solving (Belanger, Kirkpatrick, & Derks, 1998), creativity (Murdock & Ganim, 1993), generativity (Hampes, 1993), and high verbal ability (Suls, 1972). Humor involves the suspension of the normal rules of logic, as does innovation (Humke & Schaefer, 1996) and has been shown to enhance mental rotation (Belanger et al., 1998). It is also claimed that humor supports education by reducing anger (Forbes, 1997) and engaging student attention (Prosser Jr., 1997).


Neural research may offer some insight into the functions of humor (e.g., McCrone, 2000). Prathiba Shammi recently demonstrated that people with right frontal lobe damage fail to recognize irony, while still enjoying slapstick humor (Shammi & Stuss, 1999). Of course, this effect may be related more to second-order language comprehension than humor (Winner, Brownell, Happe, Blum, & Pincus, 1998) and it seems to almost duplicate an earlier study (Brownell, Michel, Powelson, & Gardner, 1983). But it is an identification of a brain area that is involved in the decoding of humor.

Positive and negative emotions have traditionally been seen as bipolar, involving the same mechanisms (e.g., Simonov & Mikhailova, 1971). However, they may operate quite differently in the case of humor. Positive responses to incongruity and resolved-incongruity humor operate by arousing neural networks while enjoyment of tendentious humor (involving sex or aggression) seems to operate by lowering the threshold of stimulation instead (Katz, 1993). It is not clear whether this sort of explanation challenges other theories or merely demonstrates how they operate, but this is another frontier for scientific research into humor.

Besides the above-noted evolutionary views of humor's purpose and benefits, there are psychoanalytic and ambivalence theories about the function of humor.

Sigmund Freud, following on Herbert Spencer (1860), hypothesized that laughter sprung up from the excess energy created by sexual and aggressive repression (Freud, 1960). He saw humor as a relatively clandestine way of expressing these socially proscribed urges. He divided the topic into three subsections: (a) jokes, which were used to express tendentious material such as sex and aggression, (b) wit, which was used to exercise and celebrate the intellect through word play primarily, and (c) humor, which was used for the good natured sharing of mirth and enjoyment.

Freud understood jokes as a temporary rebellion against the psychic censors that monitor sexual and aggressive content, but could not explain the appeal of nonsense humor. Much later, Marvin Minsky (1984) was able to explain nonsense humor as a rebellion against the logic police. Empirical research tends to confirm Freud's contentions (Redlich, Levine, & Sohler, 1951) and suggest that simple cognitive explanations of the humor process may miss important subconscious aspects (Deleanu, 1983).

Related to Freudian safety valve theories of the function of humor are ambivalence theories. They assert that humor acts as a circuit breaker when someone is forced to entertain two strong and opposing emotions at the same time (Hazlitt, 1890). Arthur Koestler (1964) claims that humor occurs when two conflicting perspectives are briefly entertained at the same instant. Marvin Minsky (1984) agrees that two representational frames cannot successfully be entertained at once.

Different authors identify different dichotomies as being at the root of the humor. James Beattie (1778) attributes humor to ambivalence between the suitable and the unsuitable. John Greig (1969) specifies ambivalence between love and fear, expressed in adults as the opposition of sexuality and repression. George Milner (1972) cites the ambivalence between nature and culture. However, while strong emotional ambiguities have been shown to enhance the ferocity of laughter, they do not seem to be essential to the existence of humor. Ambiguity itself does not inevitably lead to humor, as opposed to confusion or anxiety.

The above theories attempt to account for the existence of humor by arguing that humor is adaptive, and could be expected to have been selected in over the generations.

Stimulus Theories

In this second category of humor theories, which try to explain what is funny about funny things, it is the various incongruity theories that prevail. However, there are also surprise theories, which suggest that an event must be sudden in order to be humorous.

While surprise is a ubiquitous quality of humor (especially in the punch lines of jokes), it does not seem essential (van Thriel & Ruch, 1993). People often laugh at the same ludicrous thing (such as a favorite comedy routine) long after the surprise has gone (Nilsen, 1990). Not only is surprise not always present in humor, but some have even questioned whether any sort of shift is necessary for humor (Roberts, 1987). It seems that surprise is not essential to the experience of humor.

Incongruity, however, looks like a better candidate for an essential ingredient of humor (e.g., Wicker, Thorelli, Baron III, & Ponder, 1981). There are many incongruity theories, all of which state in various ways that humor consists of the juxtaposition of the incongruous.

Some research, undertaken originally to examine surprise theories, seemed to show that incongruity alone (at an appropriate level) was sufficient for humor. (Deckers & Winters, 1986; Nerhardt, 1996). Participants lifted several weights, each about as heavy as the last. Then a weight much heavier (or much lighter) was introduced. Lifting these incongruous weights generated bursts of laughter. Using the FACS or Facial Action Coding System (Ekman & Friesen, 1978) , a direct relationship between the size of the discrepancy and the amount/intensity of smiling/laughter was recorded (Koehler, 1993). Although such experiments tend to equate humor with laughter and/or smiling, they also seem to suggest that the effect can be generated by incongruity alone (Deckers, 1993; Wicker et al., 1981).

However, many incongruity theorists disagree that incongruity alone is sufficient for laughter, especially amongst adults. Tom Shultz (1972) found that children under seven would laugh at a simple incongruity but that older children required a surprising resolution of that incongruity before finding something funny. Although his findings were confounded by humor that required relatively sophisticated language skills, the same point can be illustrated with a simple joke.

W. C. Fields was supposedly asked if he approved of social clubs for children. If he had answered, Why, yes I do, that would not have been incongruous and therefore would not have been funny. If he had answered, Elephants are people, too, that would have been incongruous, but would not likely strike anyone over the age of seven as very funny. If he had answered, Only when kindness fails, that would seem at first incongruous. However it would soon be resolved by remembering that Fields disliked children, and by seeing that he (pretended to) mistake the word club as referring to a long wooden stick. Clearly it is the resolution of the incongruity that is funny in this example.

Advocates of the incongruity-resolution view feel that they can explain Decker's results with weight disparity in this way. Although the sudden unexpected heaviness (or lightness) of a new weight at first seemed incongruous, the incongruity was soon resolved by the subjects. They realized either that it was all just a joke, or that their original expectations had never really been justified. This view is favored by the Gestalt psychologists such as Norman Maier (1932), Gregory Bateson (1953), and Bateson's students, including the seminal modern humor scholar Bill Fry, Jr. (1963). Their claim is that incongruity is necessary but not sufficient for humor.

In general, scholars believe that humor is a necessary condition for humor stimuli. But some writers, such as Tomas Kulka (1990) and Robert Latta (1998), reject incongruity theories altogether. They argue that incongruity theories point to a ubiquitous quality of humor stimuli, but cannot account for either the aesthetic enjoyment of incongruity or the pleasurable affective response that it seems to generate. To respond to these criticisms, it is necessary to look at theories that go beyond the humor stimulus.

Response Theories

In the final category of humor theories, about when an appreciator will be amused, it is the superiority theories that prevail. These will be discussed first, then the contribution of newer cognitive theories will be assessed.

Superiority theories are the oldest theories of humor. Partly because of this, and given that our use of the term humor is only about four hundred years old, most of these theories equivocate between laughter (the behavior) and humor (the phenomenon).

Plato considered laughter to be a form of malice, usually aimed at self-delusion in relatively powerless people (Plato, 1906). He worried that it caused people to lose rational control of themselves. He thought that any reference to gods laughing should be censored from mythology so as not to portray the gods as being out of control.

Aristotle later agreed that a joke was a tool to ridicule others who were ignorant, vain or hypocritical, but advocated moderation instead of censorship (Aristotle, 1955). Henri Bergson (1911) also agreed that laughter was meant to humiliate and consequently correct our neighbors, although he attributed all humor to the encrustation of machine-like qualities and living beings. Thomas Hobbes (1968) wrote the following oft-quoted passage:
Men laugh at the mischances and indecencies, wherein there lies not wit or jest at all ... Also men laugh at the infirmities of others ... I may therefore conclude that the passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminence in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly.
Humor scholars and practitioners, who have devoted their lives to humor, are understandably reluctant to characterize it in such a negative way. Many of them downplay the necessity to consider superiority as an essential element of humor. In fact, Abraham Maslow argued that this theory only applied to those at lower levels of development. He predicted that self-actualizers would have a more refined sense of humor, and specifically a distaste for sexual jokes. However, Robert Priest found that everyone, including the self-actualizers, preferred sexual humor as long as it was targeted at the opposite gender (Priest & Wilhelm, 1974).

Lawrence La Fave has repeatedly found that people prefer humor that is at the expense of an out-group (e.g., La Fave, Haddad, & Marshall, 1974). Dolf Zillmann and Jennings Bryant (1980) found that hot tea spilled on an experimenter seemed funny when the experimenter had been rude. Howard Pollio found that two-thirds of all humorous remarks in groups were directed at some specific person or situation, and that the majority of these remarks were disparaging (Scogin & Pollio, 1980). Charles Gruner claims to be able to explain any joke or form of humor from a superiority perspective (Gruner, 1997).

Some argue that, for children at least, laughter may be a roar of triumph on solving a puzzle or mastering the cognitive challenge of a joke (Harter, 1971; McGhee, 1974; Zigler, Levine, & Gould, 1967). At least it is clear that people do not usually laugh (except in a nervous way) at situations or people that frighten them. In this sense they laugh only at things over which they feel a certain superiority.

Perhaps superiority theory explains the beneficial effects of humor on health, both physical and psychological. Laughing at a problem, according to superiority theory, signifies an ability to rise above it. Anything we can laugh at is not overwhelming to us. Thus, when we laugh at our problems, they seem somehow smaller and less threatening. Then we can get on with our healing, without the fear and panic normally associated with disease.

Cognitive theories represent a different approach to explaining when people will be amused and generate amused laughter. These theories look at the humor from the response side of how we react to humor stimuli, rather than analyzing the humor stimuli themselves. According to Daniel Berlyne (1969) laughter is the result of either high arousal beyond our normal tolerance, or a brief arousal followed by a sudden jag when the arousal turns out to have been unnecessary. These theories map well onto incongruity and incongruity-resolution theories respectively, seeming to describe our response to those stimuli.

Robert Latta goes further to say that incongruity is irrelevant to the humor process (Latta, 1998). He feels that it is our response (regardless of the stimulus) that defines humor. He claims that nothing we can resolve was really incongruous anyway, and asserts that laughter merely serves to actively re-set the body to its former relaxed state after a state of unrelaxation. This state of unrelaxation sounds a lot like Berlyne's arousal, but is defined so broadly that one wonders if we are ever relaxed under that definition. Cognitive theories are speculative at the moment, but are well suited to the sort of fMRI testing that is now becoming prevalent in brain research (e.g., Gallagher et al., 2000; McCrone, 2000; Ozawa et al., 2000). Of course, it is not clear whether these investigations will challenge other accounts of humor or simply serve to explain how they operate.

Integrating the Theories

Although the advocates of various theories debate one another with considerable acrimony, it seems to this author at least that the existing theories of humor can be integrated in the following way (a) incongruity of some sort is required to get the attention of receivers (perk up their ears). Congruous events are commonplace. This aspect of the integration acknowledges the contribution of incongruity theories; (b) if that incongruity is not seen as threatening or frightening, it can be characterized as amusing. This aspect of the integration acknowledges the contribution of superiority theories; (c) depending on the degree to which this incongruity taps into normally-repressed areas such as sex or aggression, it will be more or less funny (up to the point of offense). This aspect of the integration acknowledges the contribution of relief theories. The integration is illustrated in Figure 5.

Integrating the Theories

If no, then boring. If yes, then interesting ...

If yes, then frightening. If no, then amusing ...

If no, then mildly amusing. If yes, then very funny.

To review the discussion so far, humor means the enjoyment of incongruity (Morreall, 1989). The phenomenon of humor requires at least an object (probably incongruous) and an appreciator (probably feeling superior). It also usually involves an initiator and often some sort of onlookers. The context within which humor occurs is complex and interacts with the humor. There are many theories of humor. Some are theories about the function of humor (predominantly to vent psychic energy), some are stimulus theories (predominantly incongruity theories, with or without resolution), and some are response theories (experiencing a pleasant cognitive shift and/or a feeling of mastery). How has this knowledge been studied and applied to the workplace?


The workplace is different from other places in two ways. There is task to be done and that task has been assigned to, rather than selected by, those who are undertaking it. Because of the task focus, there is somewhat less tolerance in a workplace for distractions like humor. Because the tasks are assigned by bosses, there is a power dimension in the workplace that may not exist outside of the workplace. Also, the employer is a stakeholder in all events at the workplace; benefitting from any improvements humor may create and facing the costs of any problems.

Practitioner Work

Most of the writing on humor in the workplace is not research at all, but rather polemic in favor of using humor and tips on how to do it. Malcolm Kushner (1988) argues that humor is a powerful management tool that can gain attention, establish rapport, and make ideas more memorable. Terry Braverman (1993) writes boldly that humor at work can add to the bottom line. Joel Goodman (1992) writes that humor can relieve tension, enhance relationships and motivate people. Mark Gorkin (1990) claims that humor helps co-workers get along better, respond to criticism better, and develop the capacity for making novel connections that lead to the solution of business problems. Sheila Feigleson (1989) claims that employees who have fun at work are less likely to be late or absent, and job turnover improves while motivation and productivity climb. The list of such writings goes on and on.

Such work focuses very generally on fun as a motivator at work as a motivator and as an enabler of creativity. The prospect that fun work places are more attractive and may engender creativity seems valid, and there is some responsible work in the area (e.g., Danna & Griffin, 1999; Duncan, Smeltzer, & Leap, 1990). David Abramis (1992) applies Alice Isen's work (e.g., Isen & Baron, 1991) on positive mood and creativity to the workplace. However, many writers in this area replace rigor with enthusiasm. Rare are the acknowledgments that humor can create problems such as offense, and suggestions to deal with the problems seem simplistic. Users are advised to make fun of themselves, to target key competitors in all of their jokes, or to avoid laughing at rather than laughing with others. They are rarely advised about the loss of credibility that has been demonstrated empirically for those who use humor, or the dangers of getting carried away with the fun and forgetting quality or safety concerns at work (or neglecting to do any work at all).

Humor consultants pronounce the health of the humor movement. Companies such as Eastman Kodak (Caudron, 1992), IBM (Wickberg, 1998), Ben & Jerry's (Cohen & Greenfield, 1997) and Southwest Airlines (Freiberg & Freiberg, 1996) are presented as examples of companies that make strategic use of humor. Cognex is one small company that is known for employing humor as a motivator (Nyuck, nyuck, nyuck., 1997). Southwest Airlines is still committed to humor, but the Kodak humor room is long gone and Ben & Jerry's has recently been sold to Unilever (it remains to be seen whether fun in the workplace will continue to be supported as a priority).

Some companies do acknowledge the importance of having fun at work. Andre Descheneaux of the Applied Humour Association works with bankers in Canada (Bernatchez, 1993). Over 90% of executives surveyed by Accountemps believed that people with a sense of humor get more promotions at work (Flynn, 1995), although the direction of causality is in doubt. Encouraging humor in the workplace promises to restore loyalty and commitment in an age of layoffs and distrust. It also promises to increase motivation and improve group problem-solving (Consalvo, 1989).

However the truth is that most companies are not sufficiently interested in the topic to invest in managing it. A recent study by William M. Mercer found that 63% of employers were either neutral on the topic or had never thought about humor. Eight percent reported that they include fun as part of their values or mission statement while another 8% said that they actively discourage the use of humor in the workplace. Only 4% reported having hired a humor consultant (Mercer survey, 1999). The optimistic reports of humor consultants may be due as much to hyperbole and self-promotion as to the facts.

A few studies support the claim that the positive affect created by humor can increase productive work behaviors. Employees in the Colorado Health Sciences Center who viewed humorous training films showed a 25% decrease in downtime and a 60% increase in satisfaction (Matthes, 1993), although this sounds like a perfect example of the Hawthorne Effect. David Abramis (1992) studied 923 working adults at California State University and found that those who expressed more positive humor at work had higher mental health, job satisfaction, and job involvement and were less likely to quit. This work was not experimental, and the direction of causality is not at all clear.

More investigation of this group of claims is certainly in order. The people making the claims are not motivated to challenge them. Assessments of the value of such interventions are rare (for an exception, see Gibson, 1994) and, given the amount of money that is being spent by some corporations (Hanson, 1999), this would seem to be an important opportunity for empirical research.

Scholarly Research

Scholarly research into humor in organizations has flowed from anthropologists investigated joking relationships in a variety of cultures (e.g., Radcliffe-Brown, 1940). Some of these researchers began taking their observations in the workplace, using humor as an indicator of informal rank by assessing who was allowed to joke with whom. Pamela Bradney (1957) published an article based on her Oxford doctorate in cultural anthropology. She spent a year working as a clerk in a large retail store and wrote about the situations in which joking was used to ridicule deviant behavior in new employees.

The same participant observation methodology was adopted by Donald Roy (1960) who wrote about funny rituals that broke up the boredom for a group of machinists. In a shared ritual that defied the rules of the workplace, someone would shout banana time! and everyone would take a short unauthorized break to eat a banana brought from home. Then they would promptly return to work, refreshed by the game. Supervisors wisely turned a blind eye to this ritual.

One study noted that people of similar age and opposite gender, who might be potential sex partners, avoided obscenities when joking, while others did not (Sykes, 1966). Gary Traylor (1974) traveled with a team of bush camp workers watching who was authorized to joke with whom. More recently, David Goldberg (1997) analyzed joking behavior during multi-disciplinary team meetings at a guidance clinic. All of this work shares a social perspective. What is being studied is the use of humor as a tool for socializing others and/or maintaining motivation.

In 1980 Paul Malone III published a rare mainstream scholarly article on humor in the Academy of Management Review (AMR). He challenged management researchers to answer the following questions: (a) can humor, properly used, serve as a tool to enhance the managerial process? (b) can humor be used effectively by most managers, or should the use of humor be reserved to those who are naturally funny? (c) under what conditions can humor be used most effectively? (d) what types of people respond most readily to humor? and (e) what types of humor are most effective? (Malone, 1980, pp. 359-360). This study will attempt to touch on questions one and five.

Jack Duncan responded to question three in AMR with five guidelines for using humor in the workplace effectively: (a) although humor appreciation is individual, it is no more so than other aspects of attitudes and personality and should therefore not be avoided intentionally by managers, (b) potential offensive effects of joking behavior can be minimized by creating an environment that is based on trust. (c) prior research suggests that aggressive and put-down humor should be avoided, (d) managers should consciously encourage a climate of reciprocal humor ... as a means of reducing tension, and (e) managers should recognize the dignity of all individuals and appreciate the power an influence of the majority in a group (Duncan, 1982, pp. 140-141). Then, with Larry Smeltzer and Terry Leap, he published a thorough and helpful review of humor theories, research to date, and the legal implications of negative humor in the Journal of Management (Duncan et al., 1990). This article is particularly recommended as a starting point for anyone seriously interested in the field of humor in the workplace.

Applied research on the application of humor to work settings continues to appear sporadically in psychological journals such as Psychological Reports, Perceptual and Motor Skills, and Small Group Behavior. Open-minded journals such as Organizational Studies have published a wide range of work in this area (of widely varying quality), of which David Collinson's (1988) review of the organizational literature on humor is especially helpful. Mary Jo Hatch (Hatch & Ehrlich, 1993) has written from the perspective that organizational members use humorous remarks to discursively construct and organize their cognitive and emotional experiences ... humorous discourse provides a contradiction-centered construction of organizations (Hatch, 1997, p. 275).

Dissertations continue to appear on the effectiveness of humor in the workplace but, unfortunately, are often unable to find significant results and therefore attract little attention (e.g., Burt, 1998; Casper, 1999; Celso, 1999; De Stecher, 1999; Forbes, 1997; Keavney, 1993; Loescher, 1999; Mansavage, 1999; Mougenot, 1999; Noriega, 1995; Oliver, 1995; Perlini, Nenonen, & Lind, 1999; Rentschler, 1995; Snetsinger & Grabowski, 1994; Sobol, 1998; Westburg, 1999). Linda Hefferin (1996) found no significant relationship between sense of humor and teamwork behaviors and concluded that the topic could safely be ignored. Loretta Rahmani (1994) found no significant relationships between humor style and managerial effectiveness. Constance Reece (1998) found no significant differences between genders in the use of humor by managers, and only that they preferred situational over canned humor. There are also a number of dissertations on the effectiveness of humor in advertising (e.g., Bauerly, 1989; Lee, 1998; Madden, 1982; Shifman, 1994; Speck, 1987; Zhang, 1994). Of the more than 100 people who have written doctoral dissertations on humor in this decade, most have moved on to more traditional areas of investigation or pursued their interest in humor outside of academia.

Some workplace humor research has been published in the specialized journal of the International Society for Humor Studies (Humor: International Journal of Humor Research) published by Mouton de Gruyter since 1988. There has been limited work in academic journals, but most of the work is being done without the guidance of theory or the control of peer review and sometimes with little apparent concern for rigor.

In summary, research (as opposed to advocacy) on humor in the workplace is in its infancy. The phenomenon is widely recognized as important by management practitioners and even management scholars, but remains under-researched. Constructs in the field are poorly specified and even definitions are not well established. Management scholars can ill-afford to spend months working through such basic issues instead of publishing papers in more traditional areas of investigation.

One way to deal with the lack of scholarly reputation for humor research is to ground studies in well-established theory from related areas. This does not mean that humor should be used in a peripheral way (merely as an indicator of a phenomenon of interest, for example) but that humor, as the phenomenon of interest, should be investigated from the perspective of established theory and with only the most traditional and uncontroversial methodology.

It has been seen that the use of humor in business is often related to attempts to persuade others (such as in training and/or advertising). The theory of persuasion is well established, so it will be reviewed here and relied upon to form a conceptual foundation for predictions about when humor will and will not be effective.
© 2001, James Bruce Lyttle