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.


  • Jonha says:

    I think it’s amazing how things could be learned especially humor. Just like in skills, they may not come naturally but through persistence, they could be gained as if they were gained naturally or almost automatically.
    .-= Jonha´s last blog ..Carlos Slim, Forbes Richest Man for 2010 =-.

  • humour is the very very important for human life, its getting agressive growth. thanks the article
    .-= dofollow backlinks´s last blog Manchester United vs AC Milan Live Stream =-.

  • Michelle says:

    I’ve known quite a few people with absolutely no sense of humor and I find it hard to believe it can be learned at that stage in their lives. But, it’s also hard to argue with science, limited as these studies are. Perhaps there’s hope after all for these humorless souls.

  • Doug Slater says:

    I believe that humour is something that can be learned and developed like any other skill. Often it starts in early in childhood when a toddler will mimic phrases they hear their parents say (or from TV). They then pick up that this gets a pleasant reaction (laughter) and will often repeat it when they want positive attention.
    .-= Doug Slater´s last blog ..The Hypnotic Handshake Induction =-.

  • Humor has to be inborn in you…it is not possible to learn it

  • soccer boots says:

    I think humor is a natural thing which cannot get via any kind of training.

  • Thank you for this article. I realize that you requested no links in the body of the comment, but I want to let you know about AATH, an organization that studies the use of therapeutic humor. I serve on the Board of Directors of AATH and am conference co-chair this year. We had Paul McGhee as one of our presenters last year. This year he will be providing a session on his Humor Skills Development program. Lou Franzini has also been one of our presenters. Our conference will be held in Orlando April 7-10, 2010. I joined the psychology list serve this year to see if I can find any specific information from the PP field on humor and the applications in the field.

    I noticed on your research page that it is not one of the categories. I realize that we are pioneers in the field of humor studies–but want to invite you to join with us as we explore this topic. My background is education and I am interested in current cognitive research on learning and humor.

    Thanks for all of your work to develop this great web site. I will share it with my Humor Academy
    Certificate participants….a new program offered by AATH to study humor.

    • Warren Davies says:


      Thanks for the comment and kind words. I’ll put aside some time to add some papers to the research database – would you categorise it within positive psychology or do you think it’s better as a stand alone section?

  • Paul McGhee says:

    Mary Kay Morrison has passed on to me the connection to this blog, since it specificallly mentions my Humor Training Program. I often hear people say, “You’re either born with it or you’re not . . . and if you’re not, there’s nothing you can do about it. That is definitely not the case.

    Research conducted in university settings on three continents has now consistently demonstrated the effectiveness of my Humor Training PRogram in both strengthening humor habits/skills and improving the ability to cope with life stress. The program is designed for the average person, but has also been shown to reduce clinical levels of depression and anxiety. In fact, the program is now being used for this purpose in Germany and Switzerland.

    The program itself is presented in my book, Humor as Survival Training for a Stressed-Out World: The 7 Humor Habits Program (published in 2010). It is available from Amazon or the publisher, AuthorHouse. The book includes a discussion (with references) of all the German, Swiss, Australian and American research testing the program.

    A couple of people above have commented on children’s humor. Another of my books specifically discusses the way in which children’s humor develops from infancy to the early elementary school years. It reflects underlying changes in cognitive development.

    • Warren Davies says:


      Many thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. Glad to hear about the results of your research, I’ll definitely pick up a copy of your book!

  • Mike Logan says:

    Hello All,

    Did you hear the one about the Domestic Violence Educator who had his guys practice belly laughing? No joke, and after a moment or two, they usually lightened up and smiled. That is actually a technique I stole from Mantak Chia’s book, The Multiorgasmic Male. That book always gets their attention. There is definitely a place for irony and whimsy in therapy. Mike Logan

  • Pat Ford says:

    I think that humour can be improved upon, i do think that some of us find it easier to laugh than others, I recently watched the last Sir Norman Wisdom Interview he was a true genious of comedy and could certainly make everybody laugh

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