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Examining the Energizing Effects of Humor: The Influence of Humor on Persistence Behavior

Abstract

Purpose

This paper examines whether, when, and how humor can increase individuals’ persistence.

Design/Methodology/Approach

Two laboratory studies were conducted using 124 students from a large Australian university to examine the causal impact of humor exposure on persistence.

Findings

The results show that exposure to humor increases individuals’ persistence in two different tasks and that this effect is mediated by the discrete emotion of amusement (Study 1). Moreover, the positive effect of humor on persistence is stronger for individuals with higher levels of self-enhancing humor style (Study 2).

Implications

Humor is not only entertaining but also replenishing. Individuals engaging in activities that require persistence may benefit from exposure to humor. Therefore, organizations that require their employees to persist may consider creating a playful culture that encourages the use of humor to increase employees’ persistence.

Originality/Value

Our study is the first to systematically examine the influence of humor on persistence. Going beyond anecdotal and correlational evidence, we document the causal impact of humor exposure on persistence using an experimental design. The findings contribute to the psychology of persistence by showing that humor can be used to increase persistence behavior. In addition, ours is the first study to show that the discrete emotion of amusement mediates the relationship between humor and persistence, and that the effect of humor on persistence is greater for individuals who are high in self-enhancing humor style.

“Amos (Tversky) was always very funny, and in his presence I became funny as well, so we spent hours of solid work in continuous amusement. The pleasure we found working together made us exceptionally patient; it is much easier to strive for perfection when you are never bored”—Daniel Kahneman

Persistence is often the key to success. Sales people need to persist in persuading customers to buy products, entrepreneurs need to persist in convincing venture capitalists to invest in their projects, and academics need to persist in writing and running research projects in order to advance knowledge. Well-known examples of those who have achieved success because of their unfailing persistence include Richard Branson, who persisted through many business failures when he first began his entrepreneurial career to became the successful entrepreneur he is today (Branson 2007), and Patch Adams, who faced many adversities yet persisted in his endeavors to eventually achieve his dream of establishing a successful free hospital that has helped tens of thousands (Adams and Van Amerongen 1998). As the ability to persist often distinguishes those who eventually achieve their goals from those who do not, an important question considered by both scholars and practitioners is, why are some individuals more capable of sustaining their effort while others give up quickly and prematurely?

Research on the psychology of persistence has long noted that persistence requires individuals to exert self-control (Hagger et al. 2010; Muraven et al. 1998). In the process of goal pursuit, many temptations may arise that entice individuals to give up their goals and abandon their effort. In order to persist toward their goals, individuals must be able to effectively inhibit their short-term desires and impulses. For instance, a researcher committed to publishing her work must resist the common temptations to give up, engage in distractions, or attend to other less demanding tasks. In contrast, when people lack the capacity to control their impulses and desires, they are more likely to withdraw their efforts prematurely, despite their belief in the importance of persistence (Muraven and Baumeister 2000).

Building on recent research on the ego-depletion model of self-control (Muraven et al. 1998), this paper explores the possible role of humor in influencing people’s persistence. As the opening quote illustrates, humor is not only often present in the workplace (Lehmann-Willenbrock and Allen 2014), its presence may also play a considerable role in understanding why some individuals are able to demonstrate extraordinary persistence toward their goals. Past research on humor has focused primary on the social and psychological benefits of humor. For example, research has shown that humor and laughter are effective for dealing with stress and improving well-being (Boyle and Joss-Reid 2004), for developing and building social relationships (Cooper 2005), and for enhancing the effectiveness of collaborations (Duncan 1984; Romero and Pescosolido 2008). However, when it comes to task persistence, not only is there little research, but humor is often viewed as inappropriate and distracting because it is associated with play (Martin 2007; Plester 2009). Notwithstanding the lack of attention on humor and performance, there is an increasing recognition that playful experiences are not the antithesis to work, with evidence pointing to the benefits of playful experience on work performance (Tews et al. 2013). Furthermore, in the business world, many successful organizations such as Zappos, Virgin, and Google, deliberately build play areas into their workspaces and organize fun events with the intent that the humor arising from these events will ameliorate the stressful nature of work, boost morale, and increase productivity (Gostik and Christopher 2008; Warren and Fineman 2007). Therefore, extending research on the psychological and social benefits of humor in the workplace, this paper examines the relationship between humor and task performance by focusing on the causal impact of humor on individuals’ persistence. In particular, this paper investigates three related questions: (1) does exposure to humor unrelated to a task help individuals to persist longer at tasks; if so, (2) what is the psychological mechanism through which humor influences persistence; and (3) are some people more capable of capitalizing on the performance benefits of humor than others? Two experimental studies were conducted to answer these questions. Study 1 examines whether exposure to a humorous video can actually enhance an individual’s ability to persist on a challenging human resource management task. Study 1 also tests whether the effects of watching a humorous video on persistence are mediated by participants’ feeling of amusement. Study 2 replicates the findings of Study 1 with a different type of persistence task, an individual’s ability to persist at solving mathematics problems, and more importantly, examines whether humor style (i.e., how individuals see and use humor) moderates the effect of humor exposure on persistence behavior.

Persistence, Self-Control, and Humor

Persistence is the amount of time and effort that a person spends at a given task (Blau 1993) and is often a key factor in achieving one’s goals in business. Despite the importance of persistence, many people fail to persist when pursuing their goals. Recent research examining why people persist at work tasks has argued that a person’s ability to persist may be dependent on their level of self-regulatory resources (Quinn et al. 2012). According to the ego-depletion model of self-control (Hagger et al. 2010; Muraven et al. 1998), all acts of volition require the use of self-control. For example, dieters need to exert self-control in order to persist with their diet and must resist the temptation to consume food that is high in fat and calories (Muraven and Baumeister 2000). In addition, this model argues that the ability to exert self-control is analogous to that of a muscle (Muraven and Baumeister 2000). Just as a muscle requires strength and energy to exert force over a period of time, controlling one’s impulses also requires the use of self-regulatory resources (Hagger et al. 2010). Similar to energy stored in muscles, individuals have a limited reservoir of self-regulatory resources to draw from. Once these resources are depleted (known as ego-depletion), individuals are less able to control their impulses leading to reduced persistence at tasks or giving into temptations. A large number of studies have found support for this model across a wide variety of tasks and domains. In particular, research has shown that a momentary depletion in self-regulatory resources can reduce a person’s ability to persist at a task and cause them to give up prematurely (e.g., Baumeister et al. 1998; Vohs et al. 2008). For instance, individuals who were temporarily depleted of regulatory resources were more likely to give up at solving geometric puzzles or mathematics questions than individuals who were not depleted (e.g., Baumeister et al. 1998; Milkman 2012; Vohs et al. 2008). On the other hand, replenishment of self-regulatory resources has been found to enhance individuals’ persistence because individuals are more equipped to control their impulses to quit (Muraven et al. 1998; Oaten and Cheng 2006).

Humor is a phenomenon that has existed for as long as human history (Martin 2007). It is ubiquitous in both social life and work life, taking on many forms including jokes, cartoons, and funny speeches (Wyer and Collins 1992). Indeed, a study by Holmes and Marra (2002) found that humor occurred on average once every 2–5 min in business meetings. Numerous attempts have been made to define humor. For example, Cooper (2005) defined humor as any stimuli intended to be amusing and Crawford (1994) defined it as any stimuli that produces positive cognitive and affective responses from observers. Consistent with these definitions, we define humor as any stimuli intended to produce amusement in the intended target (Romero and Cruthirds 2006; Romero and Pescosolido 2008).

Scholars have long argued that humor can be used to cope with stress and enhance resilience during challenging times (Darwin 1965; Hobbes 1651; Vaillant 2000). Indeed, both relief and superiority/disparagement theories of humor suggest that humor has important adaptive functions because it momentarily shields and frees people from the source of negativity in difficult situations and as a result, allows one to recover faster from challenges (Gruner 1997; Martin 2007; Mindess 1971). Over the past few decades, research in psychology and medicine has found empirical support for these ideas with studies showing that exposure to humor can have many mental and physical health benefits (Abel 2002; Henman 2001; Martin and Lefcourt 1983; Nezlek and Derks 2001). For instance, some studies have found that humor could be used as an effective tool to aid in physical recovery processes, as those exposed to humor showed improved rates of recovery after induced stress or cardiovascular disease (Fredrickson and Levenson 1998; Lockwood and Yoshimura 2013). Others have found that humor helps individuals deal with the negative impact of minor daily stresses (Abel 2002; Kuiper and Martin 1998) and negative life events (Bizi et al. 1988; Yovetich et al. 1990). For example, Kuiper and Martin (1998) found that the effect of daily stress on negative mood was weaker at higher levels of experienced humor. Furthermore, a number of studies have also found strong evidence that exposure to humor helps one tolerate greater amounts of pain (Cogan et al. 1987; Weisenberg et al. 1995; Zillman et al. 1993). In one such study, Weisenberg and colleagues (1995) found that those who watched a humorous video and found it funny were able to tolerate pain for more than twice as long as those who did not watch the humorous video.

The findings that humor facilitates recovery from stressful situations suggest that humor may also shield individuals from the source of work-related depletion and in turn facilitate the restoration and replenishment of resources. Because self-regulatory resources are also associated with self-control (Muraven and Baumeister 2000; Muraven et al. 1998), exposure to humor should have positive consequences on persistence at a task, even when the humor is only incidental to the task. In light of this, we hypothesize:

Hypothesis 1

Individuals who are exposed to humorous stimuli will persist longer at a task than individuals who are not exposed to humorous stimuli.

Amusement as Mediator

Why would humor exposure help restore and replenish self-regulatory resources? Scholars examining the effects of humor have long suggested that its adaptive impact on mental and physical health depend on the ability to experience positive emotions after encountering a humorous event (Martin 2007). Consistent with this view, we suggest that the positive effect of humor on persistence depends on an individual’s emotional reaction to humor. In particular, we propose that the replenishing effect of humor on persistence behavior does not arise simply because humor elicits a positive emotion, but rather because humor elicits a particular type of emotion—amusement (Keltner 2008; Martin 2007; Morreall 1983). Emotions research has long established that not all positive emotions are the same (Ekman 1999; Herring et al. 2011; Sauter and Scott 2005). Indeed, scholars have identified a number of discrete positive emotions (Ekman 1999), such as pride and awe, each with their own unique antecedents, characteristics, and consequences, and have called for further research examining the differences between the discrete positive emotions and their effects on both self-regulation (Hagger et al. 2010) and behavior in the workplace (Lindebaum and Jordan 2012).

Sometimes referred to as mirth (Martin 2007), the primary emotion elicited when one comprehends and appreciates a humorous occurrence is amusement (Herring et al. 2011; Shiota et al. 2006). Amusement is one of a number of basic emotions, distinct from other positive emotions such as happiness and contentment, with its own unique expressions (Ekman 1999; Shiota et al. 2003). It is a pleasurable emotion that people often spend money to experience such as when they pay to attend comedy performances or watch humorous movies. But more than just pleasant and entertaining, amusement is associated with unique physiological changes and behaviors such as higher levels of respiratory amplitude and laughter (Herring et al. 2011). In addition, unlike other positive emotions such as contentment, which is experienced when one is satisfied with their current goal state, or pride, which is experienced when one succeeds in a socially valued endeavor (Shiota et al. 2006), amusement is essentially an emotion of play (Martin 2007). When people feel amused, they are able to turn their mind away from the present activities and focus on play. This is because the experience of amusement requires individuals to actively engage in comprehension and elaboration processes in order to understand and appreciate the humorous aspect of a stimulus (Keltner and Bonanno 1997; Wyer and Collins 1992). Therefore, humor produces unique consequences for those who find the humor funny. According to Keltner (2008), the experience of amusement and laughter in response to humor can be likened to a momentary vacation of the mind, in which one takes a break from serious events. In this state, Keltner (2008) argues that reality, serious activity, and duty are suspended and one’s mind is temporarily free and at leisure. This dissociative experience may stop further ego-depletion as a person’s mind is freed from concentrating on activities that require the use of self-regulatory resources, allowing one to replenish one’s resources. Indeed, just as a physical vacation can better restore a person’s resources than resting (Fritz and Sonnetag 2006), the psychological vacation that one’s mind experiences when experiencing amusement after exposure to humor may also be more effective in replenishing and restoring self-regulatory resources. Support for this idea has been found in a couple of studies. Zweyer and colleagues (2004) found that it was the emotional enjoyment of humor that mediated the relationship between humor and increased pain tolerance, while Strick and colleagues (2009) found that participants were less susceptible to the effects of negative emotions, when they had experienced amusement, than those who experienced other non-humor-related positive emotions.

Hypothesis 2

The positive effects of humor on persistence behavior will be mediated by the emotion of amusement.

Study 1: Persistence at a Human Resource Task

Following the established procedure of previous studies in the area of ego-depletion (see Hagger et al. 2010), Study 1 used the two-task paradigm to examine the effects of humor on persistence behavior. First, participants engaged in one task known to deplete self-regulatory resources. Following this, participants were subject to the humor manipulation and then engaged in a second task designed to measure their persistence behavior.

Method

Participants and Design

Participants were 74 undergraduate students (37 male, 37 female) from a large Australian university enrolled in an introductory management course. Participants undertook the study in exchange for course credit. Two participants were excluded for not following instructions.Footnote 1 Sixty percent of the participants had some work experience, with an average work experience of 2.09 years (SD = 1.85). The average age was 19.02 years (SD = 2.82). The experiment featured three between-subjects conditions: a humor condition (n = 24), a neutral condition (n = 24), and a contentment condition (n = 24). A contentment condition was included to compare the impact of humor with that of another positive emotion. Participants were randomly assigned to one of the three conditions.

Procedure

Upon arrival at the laboratory, participants were told that they were to take part in a study about perception and analysis that required them to perform several unrelated tasks. Because the replenishing effects are difficult to detect when participants are not depleted (e.g., Gailliot et al. 2007; Thoman et al. 2011), all participants first engaged in an initial depletion task. After collecting demographic details, participants performed a depletion task that involved the crossing-out of the letter “e” on two pages of writing.Footnote 2 This task has been found to deplete individuals’ self-regulatory resources (e.g., Baumeister et al. 1998; DeWall et al. 2008). After the depletion task, participants watched one of three videos, depending upon the condition they were assigned to. Following the video, participants in all conditions engaged in a second task that measured their persistence.

Humor Manipulation

In line with past research, we used video clips to manipulate humor (Rottenberg et al. 2007). In the humor condition, participants watched a clip from “Mr. Bean,” an award-winning BBC comedy (Rottenberg et al. 2002). In this video the main character struggles to complete a test, tries to cheat off another student who refuses to help, and makes many humorous facial expressions in the process. At the end of the video, the main character realizes that there are two different tests being administered in the same examination room and that his difficulties have arisen because he has been taking the wrong test. In the neutral condition, participants watched an educational video about the management profession designed for undergraduate students studying business. While this video was relevant to the future career of participants in this sample, pretesting showed it did not elicit any emotional reaction. In the contentment condition, participants watched a video containing a beautiful beach scene with dolphins swimming in the ocean. This video was designed to elicit the positive emotion of contentment (Bednarski 2012). All videos were approximately 8 min in length.

Persistence

Unsolvable tasks, such as impossible geometric puzzles, have been used in past research to examine people’s persistence behavior (Baumeister et al. 1998; Hamilton et al. 2011; Sandelands et al. 1988). We used an unsolvable human resources (HR) task because HR issues are relevant to the careers of participants in this sample. The HR task was administered on a computer and required participants to make performance predictions of potential employees in a hypothetical company based on the employees’ personality profiles. To simulate feedback, upon making each prediction, participants were given immediate feedback on whether their prediction was too high, too low, or correct. After receiving the feedback, participants were given the choice to predict the next employee’s performance or quit the task. To encourage persistence, participants were instructed that successful completion of this task required ten consecutive correct predictions. However, the computer software administering the task was programmed in such a way to ensure that it was impossible to make the consecutive correct predictions required to complete the task successfully, and therefore participants were also given the option to quit the task at any time.

Measures

Manipulation Checks

To assess that the humor video was indeed perceived to be humorous by this sample, participants answered the following two questions after watching each video clip on a 5-point scale (1 = “not at all” to 5 = “a lot”): (i) “I found this video funny” and (ii) “This video made me laugh.” The average of the two items was used to check the effectiveness of the humor manipulation (Cronbach’s alpha = .91). Since the “dolphin” video was designed specifically to elicit the emotion of contentment and has been shown to be valid by previous research (Bednarksi 2012), we did not include a manipulation check for this video.

Emotion Experience

Participants reported their emotions immediately after watching the video. We used a scale developed by Gross and Levenson (1995) designed to measure discrete emotions elicited by video stimulus. The scale included 16 adjectives describing different discrete emotions (e.g., amusement, anger, disgust). The emotion of amusement was measured using the amusement adjective of the scale, which asked participants to rate the extent to which they experienced amusement during the video using a 7-point Likert scale (1 = “none at all” to 7 = “the most ever in my life”). Although we used a single-item measure for amusement, evidence suggests that single-item measures may be justified when a construct is narrow in scope, unidimensional, and unambiguous (Rossiter 2002).

Persistence

Persistence was measured by (1) the number of predictions participants made on the HR task, and (2) the time, in seconds, that they spent engaged in the task (Grant 2007). We measured persistence in two ways because they capture different aspects of persistence (one reflects an element of performance and the other reflects in time). While variance in each measure is subject to the possible influence of non-measured variables, consistent findings based on different measures of the same construct offer a stronger test.

Control Variables

Previous research has suggested that generalized positive affect (e.g., feeling good) may influence an individuals’ self-regulatory resources (Tice et al. 2007). Although the prototypical emotional response to humor is amusement and laughter, exposure of humor may also elevate people’s positive feelings in general. In order to show that humor exposure enhances persistence beyond the experience of generalized positive affect, the positive emotion items of the scale by Gross and Levenson (1995) excluding amusement were combined into a single variable (Cronbach’s alpha = .70) and used as a control variable.

Results

Manipulation Checks

An analysis of variance (ANOVA) revealed a significant difference in the level of humor contained in the three videos (F(2, 69) = 33.80, p < .001). T-tests showed that participants found the humor video significantly more humorous (M = 3.96, SD = .80) than the contentment video (M = 2.17, SD = 1.20, t(46) = 5.85, p < .001), and also the neutral video (M = 1.70, SD = .95, t(46) = 9.85, p < .001). To ensure the contentment video indeed elicited the positive emotion of contentment, we examined participants’ self-reported feeling of contentment after watching the videos. As expected, ANOVA revealed a significant difference in participants’ feeling of contentment after watching the 3 videos (F (2, 69) = 4.24, p < .05. T tests showed that the contentment video elicited significantly more contentment (M = 3.33, SD = 1.37) than the neutral video (M = 2.13, SD = 1.36, t(46) = 3.06, p < .01). Although the difference was not significant (t(46) = .75, ns), the mean level of contentment in the contentment condition was higher than that in the humor condition (M = 3.00, SD = 1.69).

Persistence

Hypothesis 1 predicted that participants exposed to humorous stimuli would persist longer at a task. After controlling for self-reported positive affect, ANCOVA still revealed a significant effect of the videos on the number of attempts participants made on the HR task (F(2, 69) = 12.98, p < .01). T-tests found that those who watched the humor video (M = 41.40, SD = 31.25) made almost twice as many attempts as those who watched the neutral video (M = 23.25, SD = 11.60, t(46) = 2.67, p < .01) or those who watched the contentment video (M = 20.21, SD = 17.12, t(46) = 2.92, p < .001). There was no significant difference in the number of attempts made by participants who watched the contentment video and those who watched the neutral video (t(46) = .72, ns). Similarly, ANCOVA controlling for positive affect showed a significant effect of videos on how much time participants spent working on the HR task (F(2, 69) = 9.58, p < .01). T-tests showed that participants who watched the humor video spent significantly more time (in seconds) on the HR task (M = 635, SD = 305) than those in the contentment condition (M = 425, SD = 320, t(46) = 2.33, p < .05) or the neutral condition (M = 435, SD = 212, t(46) = 2.65, p < .05). Again, there was no significant difference in time spent between the contentment and neutral conditions (t(46) = .12, ns). Hypothesis 1 was thus supported (Table 1).

Table 1 Means and standard deviations of variables for Study 1

Emotion of Amusement

Hypothesis 2 predicted that the emotion of amusement would mediate the effect of humor on persistence. Since there was no significant difference between the contentment and neutral conditions in persistence, we only included the humor and the neutral conditions in the mediation analysis. Consistent with mediation, participants reported experiencing significantly more amusement in the humor condition (M = 3.81, SD = .71) than in the neutral condition (M = 1.71, SD = 1.20, t(44.87) = 8.82, p < .001). When controlling for the emotion of amusement on the number of attempts made (β = .44, p < .01) and time (β = .46, p < .01), humor no longer significantly predicted the number of attempts (β = .20, ns) or time spent (β = .02, ns). The significance of the mediation effect was confirmed using a follow-up Sobel test for persistence measured by both number of attempts (Z = 2.14, p < .05) and time spent (Z = 2.70, p < .001). Hypothesis 2 was thus supported.

Discussion

The main hypothesis of Study 1 was that exposure to humor would increase individuals’ persistence behavior. Consistent with this hypothesis, individuals who watched a humorous video clip that was not related to the HR task made twice as many predictions in the subsequent HR task and spent significantly more time working on the task than participants who watched an emotion-neutral or contentment-inducing video clip. It is important to note that the influence of the humor video on persistence was significant after controlling for participants’ positive affect in general. In addition, Study 1 also found that the positive effect of humor on persistence was mediated by the discrete emotion of amusement. Therefore, humor exposure increases persistence when individuals find the humor to be amusing. These results not only support the benefit of humor on persistence but also demonstrate the mechanism by which humor increases persistence behavior.

Study 2 sought to extend the findings of Study 1 in several ways. First, in order to ensure that the findings of Study 1 were not simply an effect of the persistence task used, Study 2 aimed to replicate the findings with a different persistence task. Because Study 1 utilized an unsolvable HR task to examine individuals’ persistence, it is possible that participants stopped persisting because they recognized the unsolvable nature of the task. In Study 2, we chose to use a solvable and less difficult task that involves the completion of fourth grade mathematics questions to examine the causal effect of humor on persistence. A number of studies examining the effects of ego-depletion have used similar mathematics questions to measure persistence behavior (see Hagger et al. 2010). Although each math question in and of itself is relatively easy, the number of questions completed reflects persistence. An additional benefit of using mathematics questions is that it also allows us to go beyond the quantity measure of persistence used in Study 1 and explore whether there are important differences in the quality of work produced by those who are exposed to humor, since these math problems have correct solutions. In Study 2, we also chose to change the initial depletion task to a thought-suppression task that has also been used in the previous research (e.g., Muraven et al. 1998; Wegner et al. 1987). Last, Study 2 sought to examine when exposure to humor is most likely to increase persistence. In particular, we focused on whether self-enhancing humor style moderates the effects of humor on persistence.

Study 2: Self-Enhancing Humor Style and Persistence

Humor scholars have long been interested in the study of individual differences recognizing that individuals are different in their appreciation and responses to humor (Martin 1998). More recently, scholars have identified four different humor “styles” that characterize the manner in which individuals view and use humor (Martin et al. 2003). These styles can be conceptualized along two dimensions. The first dimension relates to whether individuals tend to see and use humor in a positive, enhancing manner or in an aggressive or negative manner. The second dimension relates to whether the humor is focused on oneself or others. Those who tend to see and use humor primarily to enhance themselves are said to possess a self-enhancing humor style, while those who tend to see and use humor as a way to enhance relationships with others are said to possess an affiliative humor style. When individuals tend to see and use humor to assert superiority or attack others, they are said to possess an aggressive humor style, while those who tend to use humor to the detriment of self, possess a self-defeating humor style.

Self-enhancing humor style is an adaptive intra-psychic humor style characterized by a generally humorous outlook on life, even when alone or facing difficult circumstances (Kuiper and McHale 2009). It is particularly relevant for humor experienced in non-social contexts such as when one watches a funny video clip or reads a funny cartoon or email.

Those high in self-enhancing humor style are more often amused by everyday occurrences and are more likely to see incongruities in life as humorous (Martin 2007). In addition, according to Martin and colleagues (2003), those high in self-enhancing humor style are also more likely to use humor as a way to relieve tension, deal with stress, increase courage, or as a defensive mechanism. Empirical research examining self-enhancing humor style has found it to be associated with higher levels of psychological well-being (Kuiper and Mchale 2009; Martin et al. 2003). Accordingly, it is possible that self-enhancing humor style may moderate the relationship between humor exposure and persistence. Since those high in self-enhancing humor style are more likely to engage in cognitive elaboration processes that help them find and enjoy humor in situations (Wyer and Collins 1992), they should recover from ego-depletion faster and become more persistent after humor exposure than those low in self-enhancing humor style. Therefore we hypothesize

Hypothesis 3

Self-enhancing humor style will moderate the relationship between exposure to humor and persistence. Exposure to humor should have a stronger impact on persistence for individuals high in self-enhancing humor style than for individuals low in self-enhancing humor style.

Method

Participants and Design

Participants were 50 undergraduate students (27 Male, 23 Female) from a large Australian university enrolled in an introductory management course who undertook the study in exchange for course credit. Seventy-eight percent of the participants had some work experience, with an average work experience of 1.96 years (SD = 2.15). The average age of participants was 19.28 years (SD = 3.31 years). The experiment featured 2 between-subjects conditions: a neutral condition (n = 25) and a humor condition (n = 25). Participants were randomly assigned to one of these two conditions.

Procedure

As with Study 1, participants were asked to perform several unrelated tasks in a study on perception and analysis. Upon arrival, they first filled out the humor style questionnaire (Martin et al. 2003) and a measure of trait self-control (Tangney et al. 2004). To ensure participants did not become aware of the nature of the study, the humor style questionnaire and the self-control questionnaire was embedded in a larger set of questions. Second, participants undertook the depletion task. A thought-suppression task was used, requiring participants to write about what they were thinking about for 5 min, while refraining from thinking about white bears (Wegner et al. 1987). This thought-suppression task has been found to deplete self-regulatory resources (e.g., Muraven et al. 1998). Following the depletion task, participants were randomly assigned to watch one of two videos. For the persistence task, participants were asked to solve a series of mathematics problems.

Manipulations and Manipulation Checks

The humor and neutral condition videos in Study 1 were used again. The humor manipulation check was used as in Study 1.

Amusement

As with Study 1, amusement was measured by the emotion adjective used in the Gross and Levenson scale (1995)

Self-Enhancing Humor Style

Self-enhancing humor style was measured using the 8-item subscale of the Humor Styles Questionnaire developed by Martin et al. (2003). Participants rated the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with a number of statements regarding what they thought about or how they use humor using a 7-point Likert scale (1 = “totally disagree” to 7 = “totally agree”). An example item reads, “It is my experience that thinking about some amusing aspect of a situation is often a very effective way of coping with problems.” (Cronbach’s alpha = .64)

Persistence

Participants were asked to complete a booklet of 100 multiplication problems designed for fourth grade students without the use of a calculator. Mathematics problems have been used previously to measure individuals’ persistence behavior (Vohs et al. 2005). Participants were told that they should try their best at completing all the problems, but could quit at any time. Consistent with Study 1, persistence was measured by (1) the number of mathematics problems participants completed, and (2) the time, in seconds, they took working on the mathematics questions.

Control Variables

As with Study 1, we controlled for positive affect by combining the positive emotion items of the scale by Gross and Levenson (1995) into a single variable (Cronbach’s alpha = .83). As participants’ persistence at a mathematics task might also be influenced by their enjoyment of mathematics, we included a question asking participants to indicate how much they enjoyed mathematics using a 5-point Likert scale (1 = “Dislike very much” to 5 = “Like very much”). Since we were exploring the role of individual difference in response to humor, we also controlled for trait self-control to ensure that the effects of humor style were not due to individual differences in trait self-control. Trait self-control was measured using a 13-item trait self-control scale by Tangney and colleagues (2004). Participants rated the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with a number of statements on a 7-point likert scale. An example item reads, “I am good at resisting temptations” (Cronbach’s alpha = .75).

Results

Manipulation Checks

As expected, a t test showed a significant difference in perceived humor between the two conditions. The humor video was perceived as significantly more humorous (M = 4.06, SD = 1.07) than the neutral video (M = 1.12, SD = .37, t(48) = 12.97, p < .001).

Persistence

Table 2 displays the means and standard deviations of key variables. Consistent with Study 1, ANCOVA after controlling for positive affect, trait self-control, and enjoyment of math revealed a significant difference between the two video conditions on the number of math problems participants completed (F(1, 48) = 4.71, p < .05), with those who watched the humor video (M = 28.60, SD = 13.51) completing almost twice as many problems on average than those who watched the neutral video (M = 16.32, SD = 16.55). ANCOVA controlling for positive affect, trait self-control, and enjoyment of math also revealed a significant effect of humor on the time participants spent working on the math problems F(1, 48) = 5.14, p < .05), with those in the humor condition spending significantly more time (in seconds) (M = 1033, SD = 495) than those in the neutral condition (M = 585, SD = 483). Furthermore, additional analysis found no significant difference in the percentage of correct answers between the humor condition (M = 82 %, SD = 27 %) and neutral condition (M = 82 %, SD = 17 %, F(45) = .04, ns) indicating that the quality of work did not differ between conditions. Hypothesis 1 was thus supported.

Table 2 Means and standard deviations of variables for Study 2

Feeling of Amusement

Hypothesis 2 predicted that amusement would mediate the relationship between humor and persistence behavior. Consistent with mediation, participants reported experiencing significantly more amusement in the humor condition (M = 4.84, SD = 1.10) than in the neutral condition (M = 1.64, SD = .99, t(47.47) = 10.75, p < .001). When controlling for the significant effect of amusement on persistence behavior measured by number of questions attempted (β = .52, p < .01) and time (β = .57, p < .01), humor no longer predicted the number of questions attempted (β = .14, ns) or the amount of time spent on the task (β = .18, ns). The significance of the mediation effect was confirmed using a follow-up Sobel test for persistence measured both by number of attempts (Z = 2.48, p < .01) and by time spent (Z = 2.44, p < .01). Hypothesis 2 was thus supported.

Self-Enhancing Humor Style

Hypothesis 3 predicted that the relationship between humor and persistence behavior would be moderated by self-enhancing humor style. That is, the effect of humor on persistence behavior would be stronger for those high in self-enhancing humor style. This hypothesis was tested using hierarchical linear regression. Self-enhancing humor was treated as a continuous variable. Humor was dummy coded (0 for no humor and 1 for humor), and the interaction between humor and self-enhancing humor style was computed based on standardized variables. Regression analysis is presented in Tables 3 and 4. Entry of the interaction term contributed additional variance in predicting persistence for both number of questions attempted (R 2Δ = .09, F(6, 43) = 2.81, β = 1.00, p < .05) and time spent on the task (R 2Δ = .13, F(6, 43) = 2.88, β = 1.14, p < .05). The positive interaction terms suggest that the relationship between humor exposure and persistence was stronger for those with high self-enhancing humor style than for those with low self-enhancing humor style. Additional analyses also revealed that the simple slope of the regression line had a positive, significant value for participants with high self-enhancing humor style for persistence as measured by number of attempts (β = 22.46, t = 2.71, p < .001) and time in seconds (β = 794, t = 2.81, p < .001) and also for low self-enhancing humor style as measured by persistence (β = 2.68, t = 2.11, p < .05) and time (β = 71, t = 1.68, p < .10). Together, these results support Hypothesis 3. That is, while exposure to humor significantly influenced participants’ persistence, this effect was stronger for those participants with high levels of self-enhancing humor style than those with low levels of self-enhancing humor style.

Table 3 Hierarchical moderated regression analysis predicting persistence measured by attempts
Table 4 Hierarchical moderated regression analysis predicting persistence measured by time

General Discussion

Although humor has been found to help relieve stress and facilitate social relationships (Abel 2002; Cooper 2008), the traditional view of task performance implies that individuals must concentrate all their effort on their endeavors and should avoid things such as humor that may distract them from the accomplishment of task goals (Martin 2007). However, over the past few decades there has been increasing recognition that humor may have a functional impact on important behaviors in the workplace (Romero and Cruthirds 2006) and that exposure to humor may increase the effectiveness of employees (Gostik and Christopher 2008). In addition, a new corporate trend has started to emerge in which many successful organizations have begun to bring fun and levity into their workplaces (Gibson 1994; Gostik and Christopher 2008). Notwithstanding these changes, it is less clear about whether and how humor actually influences task performance. Focusing on a crucial dimension of task performance—task persistence, this paper explored one way in which humor can enhance performance. Results from two experiments consistently showed that exposure to humor significantly increases individuals’ task persistence. Individuals who watched a short humorous video subsequently demonstrated significantly more persistence on both a business task and a math task with those exposed to humor on average making almost double the number of attempts at assigned tasks and spending at least fifty percent longer than those who were not exposed to humor. Our results also demonstrate that the positive effect of humor exposure on task persistence is mediated by the discrete emotion of amusement. Participants who watched the humor video experienced more amusement which in turn enhanced their subsequent persistence behavior. Importantly, extending research showing that individuals react to humor in different ways (Korczynski 2011; Plester 2007), results from Study 2 found that the positive effect of humor on persistence is stronger for individuals with higher levels of self-enhancing humor style.

This paper makes several theoretical contributions to our understanding of persistence and humor. Recent research in the area of self-control and ego-depletion has consistently linked failure to persist to the depletion of individuals’ regulatory resources (e.g., Gailliot et al. 2007; Thoman et al. 2011; Tice et al. 2007). Furthermore, this literature has identified a large number of social and organizational factors that can temporarily deplete individuals’ resources and therefore reduce people’s capacity to persist (Ciarocco et al. 2001; Vohs et al. 2005; Zhou et al. 2009). These findings help explain why people often give up on their goals prematurely, despite knowing the importance of achieving these goals. Extending this literature, our study focuses on how individuals can manage ego-depletion (Gailliot et al. 2007; Thoman et al. 2011; Tice et al. 2007) by showing that humor exposure may represent an important way to help individuals restore their resources after depletion, allowing them to persist for longer at tasks.

In addition, while the ego-depletion literature has long suspected that the experience of positive emotions may replenish people’s regulatory resources, findings so far have been inconclusive. For example, some studies have found that the experience of generalized positive emotions enhances replenishment (Tice et al. 2007), while others have found that not all positive emotions may enhance resource recovery (Thoman et al. 2011) and that some positive emotions may even have a negative effect on self-regulatory resources (Wyland and Forgas 2007). Our own findings that participants who watched a humorous video exhibited an increase in persistence, while those who watched a contentment-eliciting video did not exhibit any increase, suggest that the role of positive affect in enhancing self-regulatory resources may be complex. In light of this result, we suggest that future research may consider moving beyond the valance approach and examine the effects of discrete positive emotions on self-control and persistence.

Related to the above point, a further contribution of our paper is that it moves beyond generalized positive affect and identifies a discrete emotion, amusement, which mediates the relationship between humor and persistence behavior. Amusement is the emotion that is most often linked to play and playful interactions (Martin 2007), with research showing that play and playful behavior, such as laughter, is particularly effective in helping people work (Tews et al. 2013). Although humor scholars have long believed that its benefits arise from eliciting positive emotions in general (e.g., Martin 2007), our findings that amusement leads to increased persistence behavior over and above the effects of positive emotions suggest that the emotion of amusement is vital in understanding the impact of humor on persistence. In addition, emotion scholars have long called for research to examine discrete emotions (e.g., Ekman 1999; Izard 1993; Lindebaum and Jordan 2012). Earlier efforts to answer this call focused on negative emotions such as anger, sadness, and disgust (Fessler et al. 2004; Tiedens 2001), while more recently, scholars have turned their attention to differences in positive emotions such as joy, pride, and amusement (Herring et al. 2011; Williams and Destano 2008). Thus, we contribute to emotions research by highlighting the importance of amusement as an important mediating mechanism by which exposure to humor may lead to beneficial outcomes. We specifically urge research to focus on exploring the discrete emotion of amusement in other work and organizational contexts.

Lastly, humor researchers have long argued that individuals respond to humor differently (Martin 1998), yet to our knowledge our study is one of the first to apply research on humor styles to understand the relationship between humor exposure and work-related outcomes. Consistent with the view that humor exposure works better on some people than others (Martin 1998), the present study also sought to examine whether the impact of humor exposure on persistence is contingent on individual differences in humor style. Focusing on self-enhancing humor style, our findings show that individuals who are high in self-enhancing humor style are indeed more likely to benefit from humor exposure in the context of persistence. This finding highlights the importance of going beyond the main effect of humor and exploring how individuals may respond to humor differently. We hope this paper will spur future research to examine how humor styles influence the outcomes of humor. For example, do those who have high self-enhancing humor style benefit more from humor exposure because they find humorous events more amusing or because they were more likely to utilize amusement to restore depleted resources?

Like most research, our study has its limitations. First, our studies examined persistence using a single episode of humor. Our results are thus limited in their ability to generalize to the effects of humor frequency on task persistence. Future research may examine whether the frequency of humor may moderate the relationship between humor exposure and persistence. Too much humor may indeed become disrupting to work performance. Second, both our studies occurred in a laboratory setting and used student samples, which have been criticized in the past for their lack of generalizability (Greenberg 1987). However, according to Highhouse (2009), the generalizability of an experiment is dependent primarily upon whether the operationalization of the construct is true to the constructs themselves. Although we recognize that persistence and humor can take on different forms in organizational contexts, the operationalization of persistence and humor in our studies reflect the key constructs and have been used in previous studies (e.g., Ciarocco et al. 2001; Muraven et al. 1998). Thus, we believe that the relationship between humor exposure and task persistence should generalize in different contexts. Nevertheless, we see value and benefit in testing the theoretical relationship in an organizational setting in the future.

Another limitation lies in the single-item measure we used to measure amusement. Evidence suggests that single-item measures may be justified under certain circumstances. When a construct is narrow in scope, unidimensional, and unambiguous, single-items measures are considered as the best approach (Rossiter 2002). Furthermore, empirical research comparing single-item scales to multi-item scales shows that the results are comparable when samples are small (Diamantopoulos et al. 2012) and construct unambiguous (Bergkvist and Rossiter 2007, 2009). Given that our sample is relatively small and that the emotion of amusement is easily distinguished from other emotions, the use of a single-item scale should be less problematic. Our study also only considered one type of humor, produced from an external source (i.e., a video). Other types of humor such as self-deprecating humor may have a different effect on individuals’ capacity to persist. Future research may examine whether making jokes about one’s own weaknesses will have the same effect on persistence as found in the current studies. Finally, our study focused primarily on the exposure of humor and an individual’s own persistence. While employees are often exposed to humor in this manner, such as when they read the daily comic attached to their calendar or watch a funny video forwarded in an email, humor often occurs in a social context between coworkers, such as meetings and team collaborations (Holmes and Marra 2002). Going back to the example that opened the paper, future research should explore the effects of humor and its related humor styles (e.g., affiliative and aggressive) in team situations. Can the expression or exposure of humor make a team more persistent through important social processes? For example, the effect of reciprocated humor may have enhanced effects as team members share additional jokes stemming from the initial joke (Robert and Wilbanks 2012) and this may be heightened by different humor styles (e.g., affiliative humor style). This poses exciting opportunities for future research and we encourage future scholars to examine the effects of shared humor on team performance. Lastly, while we focused on the benefits of humor, it should be noted that not all forms of humor lead to positive outcomes in the workplace. In particular, humor that is sexual or prejudicial in nature may be offensive and have detrimental consequences if used in the workplace (Malone 1980; Plester 2009). Research has also shown that humor programs introduced by management may be met with cynicism by employees (Fleming 2005) and therefore they may be too “forced” to lead to the desired benefits. Nevertheless, future research should explore conditions under which humor may lead to constructive or destructive outcomes in the workplace.

Our results also have important practical implications. Persistence is important in any endeavor that requires hard work. Understanding the importance of persistence, however, does not always help people become more persistent. The challenge faced by individuals in the workplace is less about why they should persist but how to create and maintain the energy to persist. Our paper has implications on the effectiveness of different tactics that people may use to increase their persistence. For example, a common strategy to combat depletion is often rest. This is akin to our neutral condition in the experiment. In addition, there is also suggestion that meditation which induces contentment should help restore people’s energy. While our contentment video is not comparable to meditation, the video created a feeling of contentment. We compared both strategies against humor which at first appears to be an unlikely candidate to help one persist at work tasks. In fact, the traditional imagery of persistence is that it is a serious business and, if anything, humor and levity may entice people to focus less on work. In contrast to this view, we found that exposure of humor was the best at enhancing individuals’ persistence. Indeed, participants in the humor conditions maintained effort and persisted at their assigned task, making almost double the number of attempts and spending at least fifty percent longer on average than those in other conditions. This suggests that the enhancing effect of humor on a workers ability to carry on when tempted to quit could be very strong. In light of this evidence, it would seem that bringing levity into the workplace may yield substantial benefits. Moreover, we found that those with a self-enhancing style are more likely to benefit from humor. This suggests that people’s style of humor also matters. When people think that levity and humor are desirable in life, they are more likely to benefit from humor. Consequently, organizations should educate their managers of the benefits of humor as opposed to suggesting that humor is incompatible with the workplace. A more balanced view of humor should help to build a culture where levity and fun can be encouraged, maximizing the replenishing effects of humorous occurrences, and increasing the persistence of employees at assigned tasks. Lastly, our findings that amusement mediates the relationship between humor exposure and persistence may also have important implications. While humor may be an important way to initiate amusement, there may be other ways to increase employees’ playful experience and laughter.

To summarize, despite the belief that task persistence is a serious endeavor, two experiments consistently show that exposure to humor can aid people’s ability to persist. We suggest that humor is not only enjoyable but more importantly, energizing. As one of the first studies to explore the causal impact of humor on task persistence, we believe that our findings will stimulate further research into the positive effects of humor in the workplace as well as encourage research into examining how different forms of humor might influence these workplace outcomes. Future research might examine how different forms of humor influence workplace outcomes and explore conditions under which humor can lead to functional and dysfunctional outcomes.

Notes

  1. 1.

    The two participants completed the persistence task before the depletion task. One participant was from the neutral condition and another from the contentment condition.

  2. 2.

    Participants crossed out the letter e in any word that contained the letter on the first page of writing. On the second page, they only crossed out the letter e in words that did not follow vowels.

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Acknowledgment

The authors would like to thank the UNSW Business School for the use of their ASBlab research facility.

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Cheng, D., Wang, L. Examining the Energizing Effects of Humor: The Influence of Humor on Persistence Behavior. J Bus Psychol 30, 759–772 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10869-014-9396-z

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Keywords

  • Persistence
  • Self-regulation
  • Humor
  • Amusement