Hypothesis no. 5: Humor reflects our character

Did you hear about the blonde who got excited?  She finished a jigsaw puzzle in six months when the box said “two to four years.” Just one of many typical “blonde” jokes.

Did you find it funny? Then you’re not only a simple and straightforward character, but also rather conservative. Humor research shows that people with a conservative attitude, i.e. those who like structure and standards, enjoy jokes with a punchline that you don’t have to think about for too long. On the other hand “liberals” – in the terminology used by the humor researchers – prefer nonsense humor. Nonsense humor, as its name suggests, does not have to make sense and the meaning often only becomes clear from the context. “Our sense of humor can reveal our attitudes and our intelligence,” explains Sonja Heintz, who conducts humor research as senior teaching and research assistant in the Department of Psychology at UZH. “People who like nonsense jokes are also more intelligent.” The real litmus test for intelligence is wordplay, which goes hand in hand with verbal intelligence. If that’s too abstract for you: What do you find funnier, the hapless slapstick of Mr Bean or the incisive irony of Stewart Lee? If you chose Stewart Lee, congratulations – you are probably of above-average intelligence.

But if not, don’t worry about it. Willibald Ruch, who established humor research at UZH as professor of personality and assessment, puts it into perspective: “It’s less about the intellectual abilities per se than a question of taste, just like in art or literature – some like more simple humor and others more complex. People who have a basically positive attitude towards new and complex things also like more complex forms of humor.”

Humor’s broad palette means there’s something to suit almost everyone. Sonja Heintz has identified 21 types of humor that we produce in various situations, which can be roughly divided into three categories: Simple fun and fooling around, e.g. slapstick; mockery, including sarcasm and cynicism; and challenging and thought-provoking humor such as wordplay, nonsense and black comedy. UZH psychologists are currently conducting an online study to find out what links humor, personality and creativity. If you’d like to find out more about your own sense of humor, you can take part here: 

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