Psychology Humor
Jennifer Hofmann, Willibald Ruch
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 November 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 November 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0127


In psychological research, humor and the sense of humor are concepts studied in a variety of fields, such as personality, social, and clinical psychology and education and health psychology. In fact, in the late 20th and early 21st centuries research has been carried out on fundamental and applied issues, and a humor and health movement is burgeoning. The International Society of Humor Studies (ISHS) unites several hundred researchers from many disciplines, and the Association of Applied and Therapeutic Humor (AATH) is an international community of professionals involved in the practice and promotion of healthy humor. The psychology of humor refers to the study of humor and people, not to humorous material only. It covers several dimensions, including humor production, humor appreciation, emotional responses, behavioral styles expressing humor, cognitive aspects and aims at describing, explaining, predicting, and controlling humorous behavior. Nevertheless, no agreed definition of either term—humor or sense of humor—exists. Humor can be either viewed as a broad umbrella term for all phenomena of this field (mostly Anglo-American research and everyday language) or as a worldview in the sense of smiling at the adversities and imperfections of life (following the tradition of the aesthetics). Different methods have been applied to define the sense of humor, measure it, and eventually train it. This entry provides an overview on the most important theories, conceptualizations, measurement issues, and the use of humor in the applied fields.

General Overviews

First works on humor in psychological research date back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, stemming from two traditions: philosophy and nature science/medicine. Early works often lack a distinction between humor and laughter or use the terms interchangeably. Whereas the study of humor has played a marginal role in psychological research of the first half of the 20th century, the topic was rediscovered in the 1970s, with a strong experimental, developmental, and cognitive focus. Later, the research of the mid-1980s was more directed toward personality and applied issues such as health and therapy. However, not all basic dilemmas have been solved, and many fields of the application of humor still lack profound theoretical grounds. Martin 2007 is worthwhile for its range and accessibility and summarizes most of the pertinent literature including more historical works. Nevertheless, readers are advised to study the anthologies and journal articles of the past, as not all knowledge is preserved in more recent books. McGhee 1979, Chapman and Foot 1977, Chapman and Foot 1992, and McGhee and Goldstein 1983 are still considered to be classics and up to date in many respects. Ruch 2007 focuses on the sense of humor as a personality trait, and Raskin 2008 is a primer of humor research that gives an interdisciplinary introduction to humor research. Both books are suitable for advanced students and scholars. Furthermore, the special issue on humor in personality and social psychology (Kuiper 2010) gives insight into empirical work mostly dealing with humor styles and their relation to health. It is suitable for those interested in humor styles and a practical approach to the use of humor in everyday life from a health psychology perspective. Furthermore, new directions in psychology have conducted excellent research on humor and related topics outside the community of humor research (e.g., positive psychology, see Ruch 2004 for a description of humor as character strength).

  • Chapman, Antony J., and Hugh C. Foot. 1977. It’s a funny thing, humour. Oxford: Pergamon.

    Compilation of manuscripts of the talks at the first international humor conference in Cardiff (Wales) in 1996 representing a very broad variety of topics in humor research.

  • Chapman, Antony J., and Hugh C. Foot, eds. 1992. Humor and laughter: Theory, research, and applications. 2d ed. New York: Transaction.

    A classic must read (originally from 1976) for any student of humor psychology. Includes classical theoretical approaches by Thomas Shultz, Mary Rothbart, Dolf Zillmann and Joanne Cantor, and Charles Gruner. Raises still-pertinent issues in humor research (e.g., the separation of humor from laughter in theory building).

  • Kuiper, Nicholas A., ed. 2010. Special issue: Humor research in personality and social psychology. Europe’s Journal of Psychology 6.

    DOI: 10.5964/ejop.v6i3.205

    Includes thirteen articles suitable for those with an interest in the use of humor in everyday life and its influence on health and well-being-related variables.

  • Martin, Rod A. 2007. The psychology of humor: An integrative approach. Burlington, MA: Elsevier Academic.

    Prominent guide to humor psychology, this gives detailed insights into basic issues (e.g., theories) and special topics (e.g., humor in therapy), and discusses the empirical literature. Suitable for students, as well as researchers who want to get up to speed quickly on a given area (see also Textbooks).

  • McGhee, Paul E. 1979. Humor, its origin and development. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman.

    Brings together research on the development of humor and offers some new ideas on its evolutionary origins. Focusing on the various influences on children’s humor, McGhee shows that a child learns to create and appreciate humor as he or she develops certain cognitive skills. McGhee also discusses humor as useful clinical tool and as a therapeutic way for us to cope with our problems.

  • McGhee, Paul E., and Jeffrey H. Goldstein. 1983. Handbook of humor research: Basic issues. New York: Springer.

    Summarizes classic literature on humor, emphasizing theories on the nature of humor, the relationship of humor to language, cognition and social functioning, the physiological and biological factors of humor, and the presence, use, and effects of humor in various settings. A must read for any humor student and scholar.

  • Raskin, Victor, ed. 2008. A primer in humor research. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110198492

    Provides an overview of the field of humor research, for both beginning and established scholars in various fields who are developing an interest in humor and need to familiarize themselves with the available body of knowledge. Each chapter is devoted to an important aspect or disciplinary approach.

  • Ruch, Willibald. 2004. Humor. In Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Edited by Christopher P. Peterson and Martin E. P. Seligman, 583–598. Washington, DC: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Focuses on humor from the view of positive psychology, which considers humor as one of twenty-four universal character strengths. Therefore, the focus lies in positive aspects of humor as a trait. The article provides a compact overview on the history of the term “humor,” theories, and measurement.

  • Ruch, Willibald, ed. 2007. The sense of humor: Explorations of a personality characteristic. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

    Focuses on the sense of humor as an individual differences trait. Includes a historical review of the sense of humor, theoretical issues, and research approaches. Includes a useful appendix on humor measurement, tools and tests, and a very extensive bibliography on the sense of humor.

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