Academics & Research / Spring 2018

Taking a serious look at the psychology of humor

Aimee Reichmann-Decker teaches The Psychology of Humor, an advanced seminar for undergraduate students. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

In The Psychology of Humor, an advanced seminar for undergraduate students taught by Aimee Reichmann-Decker (MA ’04, PhD ’06), humor is both a laughing matter and a topic for serious study.

Humor, after all, can be fun, inclusive, gentle and therapeutic. But it also can be uncomfortable, divisive, cruel and destructive. It can communicate affection or contempt, membership or outsider status. It can rouse a belly laugh one day and fall flat the next.

Whatever its intent or impact, Reichmann-Decker explains, humor makes us human, and its many uses and facets tell us a lot about who we are and how we make sense of life.

A teaching professor in the Department of Psychology, Reichmann-Decker comes to the topic of humor as an expert in effective social and cognitive psychology. After teaching first-year seminars on trauma psychology and advanced seminars examining mental illness through memoirs — “both very heavy topics for students,” she says — she was ready to lighten up.

“I wanted to teach a course that focused on positive psychology in motion,” she explains, adding that she created the seminar roughly five years ago to delve into how humor is used to manage emotions and stress. When it comes to coping strategies, she points out, humans turn to humor again and again, whether they’re confronting depression, sexual abuse or other traumas.

In the classroom, Reichmann-Decker expects students to traffic in humor as well as study it. “In teaching this course, I have [students] do four different presentations that are essentially mini stand-up routines,” Reichmann-Decker explains, noting that she kicks off the laughfest with her own bit, directing some of her jokes at undergraduates.

Throughout the next weeks, students — who typically come from different disciplines and walks of life — explore the boundaries of humor. Can you joke about disabilities? The Holocaust? Illness? How is humor “encrypted” for in-the-know audiences, and how can it be used to reinforce or undermine social structures and relationships?

“Essentially, what I tell students is, ‘Think about somebody who has a terrific sense of humor. What makes a terrific sense of humor? Why do you think so?’” she says, noting that humans bond over humor. “We end up enjoying people who have a similar sense of humor to us. This is one of those [social] cues. Someone who laughs at your jokes, you tend to like them better. Conversely though, humor and laughter can help keep the dominance structure in place. It’s also important in hierarchies. Who laughs more? Who is allowed to tell jokes, to be funny?”

Two years ago, word of Reichmann-Decker’s course reached One Day University, an adult-education program that bundles lectures by leading professors into five or six hours of programming. In any given year, One Day U stages 80 to 100 events in more than 45 locations across the country. With a Denver gig on the schedule, the organization invited Reichmann-Decker to wrap up the day with a presentation drawn from her seminar. The class was so successful that she was invited to restage her talk for a New York audience.

Not only did her adult learners revel in the topic, they also gave Reichmann-Decker plenty to ponder. How does a sense of humor change over the lifespan? How do different generations respond to different types of humor?

Back on campus, Reichmann-Decker looks forward to the next time she teaches the seminar and puts humor under the microscope.

“It’s the most fun I have that I get paid for,” she says. “We really become a tight-knit group, very supportive of one another. And we laugh every day.”


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