Do people tell you that you have a “sick” or “inappropriate” sense of humor?
If so, you’ll be pleased to learn that psychologists have found a positive link between a dark sense of humor, superior intelligence, low aggression, and emotional stability.
How do psychologists define “dark” or “black” humor?
Psychologists define black humor as humor that treats unpleasant or frightening topics with amusement.
Dark jokes present morbid, upsetting subjects using humorous words or images.
My grandmother, who had memory problems, used to like telling us jokes.
She’d start by saying ‘Knock knock, who’s there?’
She’d then say ‘I can’t remember,’ and start crying.
I was digging in the garden, and found a treasure box of gold coins. Excited, I decided to run indoors and tell my wife. But then I remembered why I’d gone out to dig a hole in the first place.
Two friends go hunting in the forest. Suddenly, one of them collapses to the floor. His friend dials for an ambulance.
‘I think my buddy’s dead!’ he cries.
‘Stay calm,’ says the operator. ‘First, you need to make sure he’s actually dead.’
The line goes quiet, and the operator hears a gunshot.
‘Done,’ says the man. ‘What do I do now?’
What does psychological research show about dark humor, intelligence, and personality?
According to a piece of research outlined in the journal Cognitive Processing, there is a clear link between the ability to enjoy dark humor and superior intelligence. A group of Austrian researchers asked 156 participants to rate cartoons based on black humor.
They also completed tests of nonverbal and verbal intelligence, aggressiveness, and mood disturbance.
When they analyzed the data, the researchers found that the participants fell into three groups:
Group 1: These participants showed a moderate appreciation for dark humor. They were of average intelligence, showed little mood disturbance, and reported moderate levels of aggression.
Group 2: These participants did not particularly enjoy dark humor. They were of average IQ, were more aggressive than average, and were prone to mood disturbances.
Group 3: These participants showed a strong preference for dark humor.
Their IQ scores were above average, they scored low on measures of aggression, and their moods were stable. They were also more likely to be highly educated.
In summary, smart and emotionally stable people were better able to appreciate dark jokes.
So, why do smart people appreciate black humor?
To appreciate a joke, you need to process its deeper meaning. For example, you need to understand why a word or idea is inappropriate in the context of the joke.
You also need to appreciate how words are being used to convey an idea that violates your expectations of a particular scenario.
Jokes can be thought of as problems; a good joke presents the world in an unexpected way, and your brain needs to uncover the joke teller’s intent. Intelligent people, who are usually more capable of solving problems, are able to do this more quickly.
Other research has shown that people with above average IQs are better at interpreting jokes in general, and it appears that this rule also applies to black humor.
If you are able to understand a joke, you are more likely to experience a sense of pleasure when reading it. Work with children and adolescents have demonstrated a link between overall intelligence and activity in areas of the brain used in processing humor.
What about the link between dark humor and emotional stability?
The results of this study show that comprehending jokes relies on emotional, as well as cognitive, processes.
The researchers speculate that people who are prone to emotional disturbance and report higher levels of aggression are more likely to be in a bad mood at any given time, and therefore less inclined to find dark jokes funny.
On the other hand, those who are usually in a good or neutral mood have a psychological buffer against morbid jokes, and find it easier to treat them as funny, silly stories.
This means they find such jokes more pleasurable. Another possible explanation is that when someone is in an aggressive or otherwise negative mood, their ability to understand complex ideas diminishes.
If you can appreciate black humor, be proud
The next time someone frowns when you make a dark joke, just tell them that your sense of humor is a sign of good mental health.
Or, if you prefer your jokes on the lighter side, don’t worry too much if your friend or colleague seems to have a morbid sense of humor. They’re probably smart and good-natured underneath!