Want to win The New Yorker’s weekly cartoon caption contest? It helps if you’re thinking subconsciously about death, new research suggests. Although if you dwell on death too intensely, the researchers found, the opposite will be true—your jokes will be lifeless.
The researchers who arrived at this conclusion were trying to investigate what psychologists call the Terror Management Theory—the idea that “knowledge of one’s own impermanence creates potentially disruptive existential anxiety, which the individual brings under control with two coping mechanisms, or anxiety buffers.” Humor, it turns out, is one such buffer.
The team recruited 117 students and divided them into two groups: the pain and the death group. Then, they split those two groups in half. Some students were subconsciously exposed to either the word “pain” or “death,” as it flashed across a computer screen for 33 milliseconds while they completed some random tasks. The other groups were asked to write about either their own death or a painful dental checkup. After completing those tasks, the students all wrote captions for a cartoon from The New Yorker.
A separate group of people, who hadn’t been briefed on the experiment, picked out the captions they found funniest. Those students who saw only the quick flash of “death” across the screen wrote the funniest captions, the team found. Those who wrote deliberately about death, on the other hand, produced the least funny captions. Captions from the students who thought about pain fell somewhere in between.
When dark thoughts creep into our subconscious minds, the researchers conclude, we respond with jokes—pretty good ones—in order to increase our resilience in the face of otherwise destabilizing oblivion.
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