Funny Business

This column originally appeared in The Observer magazine/Guardian online


Do you have a twisted sense of humour, or do sick jokes leave you retching? And what does this tell us about your personality? Picture the following scene


A businessman in a suit has just hung himself from a light fitting with his tie. His wife and her friend come in and find him. The man’s wife turns to her friend and says “I can’t believe it. A green tie with a blue suit”.


What do you think of this joke? (a) Really hate it, (b) Don’t like it, (c) Like it, (d) Love it.


If you said (c) or (d) you are – on average – likely both better educated and cleverer than people who said (a) or (b). If you said (a) or (b), then you are – again on average – likely less emotionally stable and more aggressive than people who said (c) or (d), though of course there are exceptions (for example, I quite like sick jokes in general, but find the trope of a woman criticizing her husband’s fashion choices a bit too clichéd to be that funny).


In a recent study at the Medical University of Vienna, Ulrike Willinger and her colleagues gave this and eleven other sick jokes (in cartoon form) to 156 participants. Although preference for black humour did not vary by age or gender, the researchers did find the above differences on emotional stability, aggressiveness and level of education, as well as both verbal intelligence (as measured by a test of obscure vocabulary) and non-verbal intelligence (as measured by a number-connection test).


So why the link between intelligence and enjoyment of black humour? One possibility is that you have to be clever to understand the joke (and the researchers did find a link between intelligence and self-reported joke understanding). That said, most of these jokes are fairly uncomplicated. Perhaps then, more intelligent people are better able to rationalize away any feelings of outrage (“The existence of this joke does not harm anyone”) that might otherwise get in the way of their enjoyment. One thing is clear: Given the negative link between black humour and aggression, anyone who argues that a mean sense of humour leads to meanness in real-life just has to be joking.


A fully referenced version of this article is available at Order Psy-Q by Ben Ambridge (Profile Books, £8.99) for £6.99 at

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