Can humour be learned?

How many therapists does it take to change a lightbulb? Only one, but it takes six months and the bulb has to want to change!

Humour has a potentially valuable place in therapy; a large number of papers argue for the benefits of it in a therapeutic setting. There is also a lot of information about humour styles out there, and what type of humour is appropriate in different settings.

BUT… is there any work on how to teach humour skills to professionals? It’s alright to advise a talk therapist to “use humour,” but humour could potentially have a severely negative effect too, if used ineffectively. So it seems that proper training may be needed.

And also, in a broader sense, humour is useful in sales, business, teaching; even in romance! So what about general humour training? We have comedy improv clubs and what-not, and these might be effective in their own way, but it’s not going to convince the scientists and practitioners to go to a comedy club to help their patients. For that, there would need to be theoretical papers, randomised controlled trials, and so on, which is ironic since these are some of the least amusing things you’re likely to come across. But I decided to see if there was any science in this area. Can humour be learned, or is it just a gift?

The Controlled Trial

“When I first said I wanted to be a comedian, everybody laughed. They’re not laughing now.” – Bob Monkhouse

As I looked through the research, unfortunately, I found very few studies. I managed to found one controlled test of a humour training intervention. Nevo, Aharonson, and Klingman (1) subjected 101 female teachers to a 20-hour humour training program, consisting of 14 individual units. At the end of the test, the treatment group saw greater improvements in measures of ‘humour production’ as rated by peers, compared to pre-test measurements and the control group. And subjectively, the participants felt that the program was moderately effective. So it does seem from this one study, that humour can be learned.

An interesting finding, however, was that ‘trait-level’ measures of humour were less sensitive to changes following the program; which might question how long these benefits last for. Maybe you have to keep practising to keep your game up.

The Uncontrolled Trial

McGhee (2) devised an 8 week humour development program, aimed at the lay audience. Franzini (3) mentions that this program is backed by a self-report follow up, but as yet I have not found it. If anyone knows of it, please let me know.

General skill or scripted sessions?

The local yoga club was in high spirits, despite the horrific Superglue accident. (credit: lululemon athletica)

Here’s another point – do we train professionals in humour production, then let them loose on their clients? Or do we systematically develop a set of lines and comments, a sort of therapists jokebook, that are tested and proven to be funny, appropriate, non-triggering, and so on? By doing so, we might increase the ‘hit-rate’ of the humour, but we may lose a certain authenticity to the interaction’s normal, organic flow. Carl Rogers and others have suggested that an authentic relationship between client and counsellor is an essential part of the therapeutic process – structured humour may get in the way of this. But in other fields this may work well.

Theoretical benefits of studying humour training

As well as looking for practical benefits in applied settings, there might be other uses to studying humour training. One in particular could be in linking the findings with the evolutionary fields. Evolutionary psychologists have been trying to find the adaptive function of humour and laughter for a while, and they’ve focused a lot of attention on attraction.

They suggest that humour evolved, essentially, as a way of attracting a mate by displaying the health of your brain and your immunity to social pressure through your fantastic wit, hence making your genes something of a commodity to members of the opposite sex.

So far, researchers have found certain types of humour to be more attractive than others; self-depricating humour is apparently the best one, as long as you’re already high-status (4). If you’re not already seen as high-status, self-depricating humour has the opposite effect on your perceived attractiveness (these researchers are also to be commended for the use of the word “diss” in the title of a scientific paper). But if humour training can be measured somehow, this would be better way to test these theories too – for example are people viewed as more attractive, so they meet more partners, etc., after a humour training program, all other things being equal?

Overall, there is little research in this area, despite many papers noting the benefits of humour in a range of professional and personal settings, and this could be a fruitful area for future study.


(1) Nevo, O., Aharonson, H., & Klingman, A. (1998). The development and evaluation of a systematic program for improving sense of humor. In W Ruch (Ed.), The sense of humor: Explorations of a personality characteristic (pp.385-404). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

(2) McGhee, P.E. (1994). How to develop your sense of humour: An 8 step humour development training program. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.

(3) Franzini, Louis (2001). Humor in Therapy: The Case for Training Therapists in Its Uses and Risks. The journal of General Psychology, 128(2), 170-193.

(4) Greengross, G., & Miller, G.F. (2008). Dissing Oneself versus Dissing Rivals: Effects of Status, Personality, and Sex on the Short-Term and Long-Term Attractiveness of Self-Deprecating and Other-Deprecating Humor. Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, 6(3), 393-408.

Loading comments...