Laughter Is (Powerful) Medicine: the Effects of Humor Exposure on the Well-being of Victims of Aggression

Abstract

Aggression at work is an expensive and widespread problem. While a large body of research has studied its antecedents and consequences, few studies have examined what victims can do to help mitigate the damage once it has occurred. Many practitioners and scholars have suggested that workers seek out humor to help them deal with the impact of stressors such as aggression, but little is known about whether humor can actually help victims deal with the psychological damage caused by aggression in the workplace. This paper presents a programmatic series of four experimental studies that examine whether and how exposure to humorous stimuli improves well-being among victims of interpersonal aggression by integrating the superiority theory of humor with Lazarus and Folkman’s transactional model of stress and coping. Study 1 (N = 84 students) showed that exposure to humor had a positive effect on well-being in a sample based in the Philippines. Consistent with theoretical prescriptions from the superiority theory of humor, this effect was mediated by increased momentary sense of power. Study 2 (N = 205 students) found the same positive effects of humor exposure on well-being in a sample based in Australia even when manipulating perpetrator power. These findings were replicated in studies 3 (N = 175 MTurk workers) and 4 (N = 235 MTurk workers) among a diverse sample of workers based in the USA.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The video was pretested using a sample of 30 Mturk workers using the same manipulation checks as Study 1. The mean rating for humor was 5.65 on a 7-point scale.

  2. 2.

    To test alternative explanations, we conducted supplementary analyses. One concern is that the results may have been an effect of the humor manipulations making the aggressor appear less aggressive toward the participants. To test this possibility, we asked participants to rate the extent to which (1) the aggressor was yelling, and (2) the aggressor was disrespectful towards them. T tests showed no significant difference between those in the humor condition (M = 4.25, SD = .89) and those in the no humor condition (M = 4.18, SD = .97), t(203) = .54, ns, in the amount of yelling that they believed the aggressor carried out, as well as no significant difference between those in the humor condition (M = 4.04, SD = .97) and those in the no humor condition (M = 3.91, SD = 1.05), t(203) = .89, ns, in the amount that participants felt the aggressor disrespected them. Another concern was that the humor manipulations made the aggressor appear less powerful. To test this possibility, we also asked participants to rate how much higher in status they perceived the aggressor to be. ANCOVA controlling for supervisor’s position found no significant difference across the humor conditions in participants’ perceptions of the aggressor’s status, F(3, 202) = .41, ns. Contrast analysis revealed that participants in the humor-coworker condition (M = 2.57, SD = 1.25) and the no humor-coworker condition (M = 2,71, SD = 1.45) did not differ in their perceptions of the aggressor’s status, t(101) = .54, ns. A similar pattern was observed in the supervisor conditions; participants in the humor-supervisor condition (M = 3.22, SD = 1.36) and in the no humor-supervisor condition (M = 3.31, SD = 1.32) reported no differences in perceived aggressor status, t(102) = .37, ns. These supplementary analyses bolster confidence in the validity of the findings of study 1 and study 2.

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Cheng, D., Amarnani, R., Le, T. et al. Laughter Is (Powerful) Medicine: the Effects of Humor Exposure on the Well-being of Victims of Aggression. J Bus Psychol 34, 389–402 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10869-018-9548-7

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Keywords

  • Workplace aggression
  • Humor
  • Sense of power
  • Well-being