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Morality in Humor

Three questions for Madelijn Strick

How do we judge what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in humor? When does a joke cross a line? Does offensive humor also have positive effects? In our series Laughing Matters, social psychologist Madelijn Strick discusses the morality in humor.

Strick is a social psychologist at Utrecht University. She obtained her PhD in 2009 on humor in advertising, and continued to study the social influence of humor ever since. After her lecture Moral Boundaries of Humor on 5 February, we asked her three questions:

Q. How come you started to do research on this subject? Is there a personal link?
A. I come from a family where humor was of paramount importance. As a child, it became clear to me that the family members who could make the others laugh at birthday parties were the most popular. I became even more fascinated when I started doing PhD research in 2004 into the influence of humor in advertising. Participants in my research came to the laboratory and were shown advertisements of soft drinks. Some drinks were advertised in humorous ads and others in serious ads. I found out that humor has a seductive power that can influence people's decisions without them realizing it.

Q. What do you think of the statement ‘It is just a joke’?
A. Humorous remarks are more easily accepted because they are seen as “just jokes”. Therefore, sexist jokes, for example, cause more damage than serious sexist remarks. People reject serious sexist remarks because they are clearly aggressive. Sexist jokes do not only downplay women, they downplay sexism. They create a norm that sexism is playful and friendly, which paves the way for further sexism.

Q. What's a good example of (using) humor in your opinion and why?
A. I admire people who can laugh about themselves and the problems they encounter in daily life. For example, if you find out after half an hour of vacuuming that the hose was not in the vacuum cleaner. You can get very grumpy about it, you can also put it into perspective with a joke. Some people even use humor to deal with a serious illness or a war situation. Research shows that the ability to elevate yourself and your social environment with humor is very good for your mental health.

Did you miss Strick’s lecture at Studium Generale Groningen? Watch our recording online


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