The sharing of humor: Sympathetic and empathetic uses of humor

Doran Layne O'Donnell


Three theoretical categories dominate humor research in communication. Superiority theories suggest that people laugh when they identify themselves as winners and others or other objects as losers. Relief theories suggest that people laugh as a means of relieving stress or anxiety, and incongruity theories suggest that people laugh when they see violations of the normal order of things. All three of the above theoretical categories assume that humor is a response to a message, but as such fall short in explaining the reasons for humor use as well as why in some instances people find humor when others who witness the same messages do not. Uncovering the reasons why and how people share humor with one another allows for a more complete understanding of humor as an interpersonal tool. This dissertation looks at the concepts of sympathy and empathy and their relationship to humor and humor use. Specifically, this "sympathy hypothesis" suggests that people produce and share humor as a means of social maintenance, stemming from the desire to make others feel better about themselves or their situations. In addition, the sympathetic lens suggests that people respond to humor in different ways, depending on who or what they sympathize with. Six main hypotheses were tested and supported. The first hypothesis suggests that humor use is less appropriate when people are highly ego-involved than when they have low ego-involvement. The second suggests that irrelevant humor is always considered more appropriate than relevant humor, and third suggested that there are interaction effects between ego-involvement and humor relevancy, specifically that as ego-involvement increases, the effects of relevant humor become more pronounced towards ratings of humor appropriateness, making them even more inappropriate. The last three hypotheses suggest that ratings for appropriateness of humor and sympathy are positively correlated, while ratings for superiority is negatively correlated with those of humor appropriateness and sympathy.