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date: 19 November 2017

Jokes and Humor in Intergroup Relations

Summary and Keywords

Humor fundamentally trivializes its topic and invites people to think about it playfully and non-seriously. Intergroup humor, humor that disparages a social group or its representatives thus disguises expressions of prejudice in a cloak of fun and frivolity, affording it the appearance of social acceptability. As a result, disparagement humor represents a pervasive mechanism for communicating prejudice particularly since society has become increasingly sensitive to expressions of prejudice and other forms of offensive speech. Indeed, disparagement humor is perhaps more readily available to us now in the digital age than ever before.

Because of its disguise of social acceptability, disparagement humor serves unique paradoxical functions in intergroup settings. It can function as a social “lubricant” and as a social “abrasive.” Disparagement humor directed at social out-groups functions as a social abrasive by threatening the social identity of members of the targeted group, by transmitting negative stereotypes and prejudice, by intensifying prejudice in the service of social dominance motives, and by fostering the release of prejudice against targeted out-groups. It simultaneously serves as a social lubricant for members of the in-group (the non-disparaged group) by enhancing personal and social identities. Finally, it can be co-opted by members of oppressed groups to serve social lubricant functions, including the subversion of prejudice, provided audiences understand and appreciate the subversive intent.

Keywords: disparagement humor, prejudice, intergroup relations, social identity, identity threat, self-enhancement, prejudiced norm theory, subversive humor, social dominance, social psychology, intergroup communication, jokes

Introduction

Intergroup humor, humor that disparages a social group or its representatives, is pervasive and readily available to us, perhaps more now in the digital age, than ever before. Indeed, recent Google searches yielded 4,240,000 hits for “racist jokes,” 2,080,000 hits for “anti-gay jokes,” 5,380,000 hits for “Jewish jokes,” and a mind-boggling 10,400,000 hits for “sexist jokes.” There appear to be literally millions of jokes and other forms of comedy available at our fingertips that disparage or malign social groups or individual representatives of social groups.

Martineau (1972) noted that such disparagement humor could shape intergroup relations in both positive and negative ways. He suggested that it could function either as a “lubricant” or as an “abrasive” for social relationships. Disparagement humor directed at social out-groups functions as a social lubricant for members of the in-group by serving self-enhancement motives and by increasing solidarity or in-group cohesion. It simultaneously serves as a social abrasive for intergroup relations by fostering a “hostile disposition” toward the disparaged out-group (Martineau, 1972, p. 119). Lyman (1987), for instance, reported that fraternity men used sexist and racist humor to reaffirm bonds of friendship and to foster a hostile disposition toward the development of romantic bonds with women. Also, Martineau (1972) noted that disparagement in the form of gallows humor serves both lubricating and abrasive functions. For instance, Obrdlik (1942) reported that Czechs, under Nazi occupation during World War II, used humorous disparagement of Germans to simultaneously maintain in-group cohesion and build resistance against the Nazis.

Disparagement humor can also have lubricating and abrasive social consequences for members of a social group targeted by the humor. As a social lubricant, disparagement humor might increase solidarity or cohesion among in-group members as they rally together against a common antagonist. Indeed, Martineau suggested that minority groups in the United States have bonded and rallied together in response to disparagement humor perpetrated by members of the dominant group. On the other hand, disparagement humor could also have detrimental (abrasive) consequences when experienced in intergroup settings, fostering demoralization and a sense of diminishment. Hearing sexist jokes, for instance, could have adverse emotional effects on women, making them feel disgusted, angry, and humiliated (LaFrance & Woodzicka, 1998). In addition, sexist humor could negatively affect how women perceive themselves, threatening their social identity and triggering a state of self-objectification, wherein women feel diminished and reduced to objects (Ford, Woodzicka, Petit, Richardson, & Lappi, 2015).

This chapter reviews contemporary theory and empirical research on the social functions of disparagement humor for intergroup relations. The discussion is organized into two major sections. In the first major section, theories of amusement with disparagement humor are reviewed, delineating how disparagement humor can function as a social lubricant by serving self-enhancement motives. Abrasive consequences of disparagement humor are also considered, as a source of identity threat for people who belong to targeted groups. The second major section explores the complex relationship between disparagement humor and prejudice against the targeted group. This section addresses the abrasive functions of disparagement humor as an initiator of prejudice and also as a releaser of prejudice. Finally, the potential lubricating function of disparagement humor for subverting prejudice is discussed.

Disparagement Humor: Self-Enhancement and Identity Threat

Disparagement Humor and Self-Enhancement

The earliest considerations of amusement with disparagement humor were guided by superiority theory, a meta-theory or broad theoretical framework that incorporates more specific theories. The origins of superiority theory date back to writings of the ancient Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, who argued that people find humor in the failings, infirmities, and weaknesses of others, and that laughter is an expression of derision directed at the less fortunate (Halliwell, 1998). However, it was English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, who provided the central proposition upon which contemporary superiority theories are based. Hobbes (1651) proposed that people are amused by and laugh at the disparagement of others because it makes them suddenly feel superior or triumphant by comparison (see Hobbes & Tuck, 1996). Gruner (1997) elaborated on Hobbes’ proposition stating that:

When we find humor in something, we laugh at the misfortune, stupidity, clumsiness, moral, or cultural defect, suddenly revealed in someone else, to whom we instantly and momentarily feel ‘‘superior’’ since we are not, at that moment, unfortunate, stupid, clumsy, morally, or culturally defective, and so on. To feel superior in this way is ‘‘to feel good’’; it is to ‘‘get what you want.’’ It is to win!

(Gruner, 1997, p. 6)

Essentially, superiority theories are founded on the idea that people are amused by disparagement humor because it enhances their own self-esteem through a “downward social comparison” (Wills, 1981).

The two most influential superiority theories are La Fave’s vicarious superiority theory (La Fave, 1972; La Fave, Haddad, & Maesen, 1996) and Zillmann and Cantor’s (1996) disposition theory. Like Hobbes and Tuck’s (1996) original conceptualization, both theories propose that amusement with out-group disparagement humor is mediated by self-esteem enhancement resulting from social comparison. Further, each theory has expanded upon and refined Hobbes’ initial theory in unique ways.

La Fave and colleagues introduced the concept of identification class (IC) to explain amusement with disparagement humor (e.g., La Fave, 1972; La Fave et al., 1996). An IC is defined in terms of affiliation (group membership) and attitude toward a class or category of persons. La Fave et al. (1996) defined a positive IC as one for which the person believes he or she is a member or has a positive attitude—the person identifies with a positive IC. A negative IC is one for which the person does not believe he or she is a member or has a negative attitude—the person does not identify with a negative IC.

La Fave’s model proposes that one experiences self-esteem enhancement vicariously, through humor that disparages a negative IC and/or esteems a positive IC. Therefore, such humor should amuse people more than humor that esteems a negative IC or disparages a positive IC. A number of empirical studies have supported this general hypothesis. La Fave (1972) for instance, found that Christians were more amused by jokes that esteemed Christian groups (a positive IC) and disparaged agnostics (a negative IC) than by jokes that disparaged Christian groups and esteemed agnostics.

In contrast to vicarious superiority theory, Zillmann and Cantor’s (1996) disposition theory de-emphasizes the role of membership in an esteemed or disparaged group, and explains amusement with disparagement humor based only on attitudes toward the disparaged target. Zillmann and Cantor (1996) proposed that “humor appreciation varies inversely with the favorableness of the disposition toward the agent or entity being disparaged” (pp. 100–101). A considerable amount of research has supported this hypothesis (e.g., Cantor & Zillmann, 1973; La Fave, McCarthy, & Haddad, 1973; McGhee & Duffey, 1983; Wicker, Barron, & Willis, 1980). In the context of sexist humor, for instance, there is substantial evidence suggesting that, regardless of sex, people enjoy sexist humor insofar as they have negative (sexist) attitudes toward women (e.g., Ford, 2000; Greenwood & Isbell, 2002; LaFrance & Woodzicka, 1998; Thomas & Esses, 2004).

Although the prominence of disposition theory may have eclipsed that of vicarious superiority theory, a simultaneous test of these theories revealed their mutual importance in predicting amusement with disparagement humor. Gallois and Callan (1985) found that attitudes toward the generic social categories of the source and target of disparagement humor, as well as attitudes toward the specific source and target, are important for predicting amusement. Thus, it seems the concept of identification class does contribute to amusement beyond attitudes toward the specific source and target of disparagement humor.

Social identity theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1986) extends superiority theories by explaining the self-enhancement resulting from disparagement humor in terms of one’s social group membership and by more fully delineating the psychological mechanisms by which disparagement humor enhances in-group cohesion (Abrams, Bippus, & McGaughey, 2015; Ferguson & Ford, 2008; Thomae & Pina, 2015). Social identity refers to the part of an individual’s self-concept that is based on social group membership (Tajfel & Turner, 1986). One’s social identity becomes salient in intergroup settings where people categorize themselves and others according to salient social group memberships. A central tenet of social identity theory is that, in intergroup settings, people are motivated to achieve or maintain a positive social identity—that is, to feel pride in belonging to the in-group (Tajfel & Turner, 1986). Consequently, people try to distinguish their in-group as superior to relevant out-groups. Disparagement humor provides such a positive distinction. Indeed, Bourhis, Gadfield, Giles, and Tajfel (1977) proposed that, “anti-out-group humour can, through out-group devaluation and denigration, be a creative and potent way of asserting in-group pride and distinctiveness from a dominant out-group” (p. 261).

Disparagement humor, then, is amusing because it enhances social identity or in-group pride (e.g., Abrams et al., 2015; Bourhis et al., 1977; Ferguson & Ford, 2008; Thomae & Pina, 2015) and thus functions as a social lubricant enhancing in-group cohesion (Lyman, 1987). Consistent with this hypothesis, people initiate disparagement humor when they experience a threat to their social identity, that is, when they perceive that their in-group is at risk of being judged as inferior to a relevant out-group (Angelone, Hirschman, Suniga, Armey, & Armelie, 2005; Hunt & Gonsalkorale, 2014; Siebler, Saskia, & Bohner, 2008). Hunt and Gonsalkorale (2014), for instance, found that men were more likely to send sexist jokes to a female confederate in a computer-simulated interaction following a threat to their gender identity.

In summary, superiority theories and social identity theory explain amusement with disparagement humor through self-enhancement motives, although differentially emphasizing the enhancement of personal versus social identity. Superiority theories emphasize enhancement of one’s personal identity; social identity theory emphasizes enhancement of one’s social identity. Finally, by conceptualizing self-enhancement in terms of one’s relation to his or her social group, social identity theory more directly accounts for how disparagement humor functions as a social lubricant for members of the (non-disparaged) in-group, enhancing in-group cohesion.

Disparagement Humor and Identity Threat

As described, disparagement humor can function to boost either personal or social identity for people whose groups are not targeted by the humor. It can have the opposite effect, however, on people who belong to targeted groups. Disparagement humor targeting one’s in-group negatively distinguishes the in-group from relevant out-groups and thus threatens one’s social identity. Accordingly, empirical research has demonstrated that sexist humor can create social identity threat for women in the form of self-objectification (Ford et al., 2015).

Objectification theory proposes that Western societies sexually objectify women through media images and other cultural portrayals of feminine beauty (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). Exposure to such messages encourages women to self-objectify, to view themselves as mere objects meant for judgment based on physical appearance (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). Fredrickson and Roberts (1997) proposed that women could experience self-objectification as a stable personality trait or as an emotional state. Trait self-objectification refers to the extent to which individuals chronically view themselves as objects from a third-person perspective across situations. In contrast, state self-objectification refers to a temporary response to contextual cues (Calogero & Pina, 2011; Fredrickson, Roberts, Noll, Quinn, & Twenge, 1998).

Importantly, it appears that sexist humor can trigger state self-objectification. Ford et al. (2015) found that women (but not men) reported greater state self-objectification and engaged in more self-monitoring of their appearance following exposure to sexist comedy clips than neutral comedy clips. Women viewed themselves as objects through the demeaning and trivializing lens of the sexist humor. Sexist humor functioned as a social abrasive, communicating to women that they are devalued for being women.

Breeden and Ford (2017) further addressed whether identity threat triggered by sexist humor is experienced intrinsically—as a threat to one’s stable definition of self, or contextually—as a threat to one’s definition of self in the context of a specific relationship or setting (Brown, 1998). Following Brown’s (1998) procedures, female participants imagined they had enrolled in a college course. Then they watched a video in which a male teaching assistant (TA) either did or did not make humorous sexist remarks as he described his teaching style. Finally, participants believed they were assigned to the TA depicted in the video or to a different one. Breeden and Ford found that participants perceived themselves more negatively (e.g., less qualified, less competent, less confident) when the TA told sexist versus neutral jokes, but only when they believed they were assigned to the TA who told the sexist jokes. It appears that sexist humor did not threaten women’s self-concepts in general; it only threatened their self-concepts in the context of the specific relationship in which they were diminished by sexist humor.

Disparagement Humor and Prejudice

Disparagement humor represents a paradox as it simultaneously communicates two conflicting messages. It communicates an explicit message of denigration of a target, along with an implicit message that the denigration is free of prejudice motives or malicious intentions—it’s “just a joke,” meant to amuse and not to be taken seriously (Attardo, 1993; Gray & Ford, 2013; Hodson & MacInnis, 2016; Zillmann, 1983). Thus, humor provides a unique vehicle for expressing prejudice as well as a unique social challenge. It disguises expressions of prejudice in a cloak of fun and frivolity, allowing it to avert the standard challenges or opposition that non-humorous disparagement likely would incur (Bill & Naus, 1992; Johnson, 1990).

Although expressed under a cover of social acceptability, disparagement humor represents an expression of prejudice (e.g., Husband, 1977; Montemurro, 2003; Montemurro & Benfield, 2015). Hodson and MacInnis (2016) argued that disparagement humor delegitimizes social groups by declaring them socially acceptable targets for denigration. Furthermore, it affirms that demeaning stereotypes and prejudiced attitudes are collectively shared within a given culture. Indeed, in order to “get” a disparaging joke, one has to share knowledge of certain demeaning stereotypes with the joke teller.

By transmitting or communicating negative stereotypes and prejudiced sentiments in a way that eludes criticism, disparagement humor represents a powerful vehicle for shaping the ways people think about and respond to one another in intergroup settings. Thus, researchers have addressed questions related to how disparagement humor relates to prejudice. Specifically, research has focused on the role of disparagement humor as an initiator of prejudice, as well as a releaser of prejudice. In addition, recent research has raised the possibility that disparagement humor can serve a positive intergroup function of subverting prejudice.

Disparagement Humor as an Initiator of Prejudice

Humor theorists historically have argued that disparagement humor creates and reinforces negative stereotypes and prejudice toward the targeted group (e.g., Berger, 1993; Freud, 1960; La Fave & Mannell, 1976; Meyer, 2001; Ruscher, 2001; Stephenson, 1951; Zenner, 1970). By reinforcing negative stereotypes and prejudice in individuals, disparagement humor is thought to maintain cultural or societal prejudice at a macro-sociological level. Husband (1977) proposed that racist humor depicted on television reinforces stereotypes and prejudice and thus functions to perpetuate a racist society. Similarly, Montemurro (2003) argued that sexist humor depicted in television shows strengthens a social system that trivializes women and promotes sexism. Sev’er and Ungar (1997) likewise suggested that sexist humor perpetuates power imbalances between men and women.

Consistent with such theoretical positions, instigating disparagement humor can have a negative effect on the humorist’s attitudes and stereotypes of the targeted group. Hobden and Olson (1994), for instance, asked participants individually to recite a number of anti-lawyer jokes under conditions of either high or low free choice. Participants who freely chose to recite the anti-lawyer jokes reported more negative attitudes toward lawyers. Hobden and Olson suggested that cognitive dissonance theory (Festinger, 1957) could explain these findings. Participants adopted more negative attitudes toward lawyers as a way of reducing cognitive dissonance associated with telling jokes that disparaged lawyers.

Maio, Olson, and Bush (1997) found similar effects of reciting disparagement humor on stereotypes people held about the targeted group. Specifically, Canadian participants who recited jokes that disparaged Newfoundlanders reported more negative stereotypes of Newfoundlanders than those who recited non-disparaging jokes. Maio et al. suggested that reciting jokes that disparaged Newfoundlanders made participants feel that it was more acceptable to express their negative stereotypes of Newfoundlanders.

Collectively, the studies by Hobden and Olson (1994) and Maio et al. (1997) suggest that reciting disparagement humor can function to initiate prejudice and negative stereotypes. However, it is not clear from these studies whether humor, as a medium of communication, uniquely initiates prejudice and negative stereotypes apart from disparaging content more generally.

Researchers also have investigated the prejudice-initiating effects of exposure to disparagement humor, which has revealed more complex and counterintuitive findings. Initial studies by Weston and Thomsen (1993) and Ford (1997) suggested that exposing individuals to disparagement humor activates negative stereotypes leading to biases in social judgment. Weston and Thomsen (1993) found that participants made more stereotypical evaluations of men and women after watching sexist comedy skits than after watching neutral comedy skits. Neither of these studies, however, included a non-humorous control condition necessary to discern the unique effects of humor as a medium for communicating disparagement. Indeed, both Weston and Thomsen (1993) and Ford (1997) explained their findings as priming effects.

Addressing this limitation, Olson et al. (1999) conducted three experiments that were better designed to test the unique effects of exposure to disparagement humor on attitudes and stereotypes toward the targeted group. In one experiment, individual female participants read either cartoons that disparaged men, non-disparaging cartoons, non-humorous statements that disparaged men, or nothing at all. They found no effects of their manipulation on the accessibility of participants’ attitudes toward men, or the degree to which participants made stereotype-based judgments of men. In a conceptual replication, Olson et al. exposed male and female participants to anti-lawyer jokes, non-humorous anti-lawyer statements, non-disparaging jokes, or non-disparaging statements. Again, they found no effects of their manipulation on the extremity or accessibility of participants’ attitudes toward and stereotypes of lawyers.

In addition, Ford, Wentzel, and Lorion (2001) investigated the effect of sexist humor on men’s stereotypes about women. Participants read sexist jokes, neutral (non-sexist) jokes, or sexist statements. They found that even men high in hostile sexism—antagonism against women (Glick & Fiske, 1996)—did not report more negative stereotypes of women following exposure to sexist jokes versus neutral jokes or non-humorous sexist statements. Taken together, then, the studies by Olson et al. (1999) and Ford et al. (2001) provide no evidence that exposure to disparagement humor uniquely introduces or fosters a negative disposition (stereotypes or prejudice) toward the targeted group.

Hodson, Rush, and MacInnis (2010) contributed to this line of research by addressing personality characteristics other than level of prejudice that might make an audience more vulnerable to prejudice-reinforcing effects of disparagement humor. Specifically, Hodson et al. (2010) examined the effect of exposure to disparagement humor from the perspective of social dominance theory (SDT). According to SDT, societies inevitably are structured hierarchically so that there exists an imbalance in power and resources among high- versus low-status groups (Sidanius & Pratto, 1999). Further, individuals differ in their social dominance orientation (SDO), that is, the degree to which they support the status quo of existing hierarchies and power imbalances. People high in SDO express greater intergroup bias toward lower status groups because they possess legitimizing myths—beliefs that validate the status quo of inequality and mistreatment (Sidanius & Pratto, 1999, p. 45). Hodson et al. (2010) proposed that cavalier humor beliefs (CHB) represent a legitimizing myth. People high in CHB strongly endorse the viewpoint that a disparaging joke is “just a joke,” and that any disparagement of a group or an individual merits a “pass” or a pardon if it is intended to be humorous.

Hodson et al. (2010) hypothesized that people high in SDO would become even more prejudiced against a low-status out-group upon exposure to disparagement humor because of their cavalier beliefs about the humor. Hodson et al. tested their hypothesis in a pre-post experimental design. First, they measured the attitudes of Canadian participants toward Mexicans (pretest), SDO, and degree of endorsement of CHB. Then, they exposed participants to jokes that disparaged Mexicans or to non-disparaging “neutral” jokes. Finally, they measured participants’ reactions to the jokes and their attitudes toward Mexicans (posttest). They found that people higher in SDO reported more negative posttest attitudes toward Mexicans following exposure to anti-Mexican jokes. This effect was mediated by CHB in a two-stage sequence. First, because participants high in SDO and CHB view disparagement humor in general as benign horseplay, they were not offended by the anti-Mexican jokes in particular. In turn, their trivialization of the anti-Mexican jokes intensified their prejudiced attitudes. These findings suggest that CHB are responsible for a circular relationship between exposure to disparagement humor (targeting a low-status group) and prejudice: People high in SDO and prejudice tend to appreciate disparagement humor (because of their CHB), which further fuels their prejudice.

In summary, recent empirical research has not supported the hypothesis that disparagement humor uniquely initiates prejudice. However, disparagement humor can intensify existing prejudice by appealing to social dominance motives.

Disparagement Humor as a Releaser of Prejudice

Research suggests that exposure to disparagement humor relates to prejudice in another way that humor theorists traditionally have not considered. Rather than initiating or intensifying prejudice, disparagement humor functions as a situational event that allows people to express their existing prejudice without fears of social reprisal. For example, Ford (2000, Exp. 1) exposed male and female participants to sexist jokes, sexist statements, or neutral jokes in an imagined group context. Participants then read a vignette in which a male supervisor treated a new female employee in a patronizing manner and addressed her using a pet name, which suggests a level of romantic intimacy that is inappropriate and potentially threatening in the workplace. Participants high in hostile sexism reported greater tolerance of the supervisor’s sexist behavior after exposure to sexist jokes compared to neutral jokes or comparable non-humorous disparagement. Mallett, Ford, and Woodzicka (2016) likewise found that women higher in hostile sexism reported greater tolerance of an individual sexist incident as well as sexual harassment in general following exposure to sexist humor. Finally, in a study by Ryan and Kanjorski (1998), men reported greater acceptance of rape myths after exposure to sexist humor that they found enjoyable or amusing.

Ford and Ferguson’s (2004) prejudiced norm theory explains these findings and provides a framework for understanding the process by which disparagement humor fosters the outward expression of prejudice. The theory is grounded in research on the way people manage the conflict between their prejudice against a social group and external non-prejudiced norms. Highly prejudiced people tend to respond to targets of prejudice in accordance with prevailing social norms (Plant & Devine, 1998). They suppress prejudice when the norms in a given context dictate restraint; they express prejudice when the norms communicate approval to do so (Crandall & Eshleman, 2003; Dovidio, 2001; Paluck, 2011; Pearson, Dovido, & Gaertner, 2009; Wittenbrink & Henly, 1996). Crandall and Eshleman (2003) refer to events that socially sanction or justify the expression of prejudice as releasers of prejudice. According to prejudiced norm theory, disparagement humor acts as a releaser of prejudice.

Prejudiced norm theory consists of four propositions related to the interpretation of disparagement humor, emergent social norms about the acceptability of prejudice against the targeted group, and personal expressions of prejudice against the targeted group. First, the theory proposes that humorous messages are accompanied by cues (e.g., identification of message as a joke) that signal to recipients that a message is not to be subjected to the usual conversational rule of literality, logical thinking, and critical scrutiny (e.g., Attardo, 1993; Berlyne, 1972; Mannell, 1977; Mulkay, 1988; Zillmann, 1983, 2000). Rather, humor invites us to treat a message as non-literal and outside the realm of logical and moral scrutiny. As Mulkay (1988) suggested, humor encourages us to abandon the usual (serious) ways of thinking.

By making light of discrimination, disparagement humor diminishes and trivializes its target, communicating an implicit message that, in this context, one should adopt a playful, non-critical humor mindset to interpret the message (Gollob & Levine, 1967; Greenwood & Isbell, 2002; Montemurro, 2003; Mutuma, La Fave, Mannell, & Guilmette, 1977). Consistent with this idea, Hemmasi and Graf (1998) reported that the more frequently people hear sexist jokes the less inappropriate they judge them to be. As they put it, “apparently, greater exposure to such materials in the workplace (a) desensitizes employees to the question of material inappropriateness; it must be alright if everyone else is doing it, and/or (b) sends the signal to them that the behavior is condoned by the organization” (p. 456). In contrast, non-humorous disparagement does not activate a conversational rule of levity and thus does not communicate an implicit message that it is acceptable to make light of discrimination.

Second, disparagement humor evokes a shared understanding of its implicit message only for recipients who approve of it, that is, switch to a non-critical humor mindset to interpret it (Emerson, 1969; Fine, 1983; Kane et al., 1977; Khoury,1985; Meyer, 2001). Emerson (1969) proposed that a joke teller and recipient form an implicit contract to suspend the usual serious or critical ways of thinking about socially unacceptable or “taboo” topics. By approving of the humor, the recipient tacitly agrees to this social contract. Thus, recipients who switch to a non-serious humor mindset to interpret disparagement humor tacitly assent to a shared agreement (a social norm) that it is acceptable in this particular context to make light of discrimination. They essentially re-define the situation as one in which they need not suppress their prejudice out of fear of social reprisal. Supporting this proposition, Ford (2000) found that sexist humor increased tolerance of a sexist event, and this effect was attenuated when participants were instructed to interpret the humor as they would a serious, non-humorous message. Also, Bill and Naus (1992) found that men viewed incidents of sex discrimination as harmless and acceptable insofar as they perceived them as humorous.

Third, like vicarious superiority theory (La Fave et al., 1996) and disposition theory (Zillmann & Cantor, 1996), prejudiced norm theory proposes that people interpret disparagement humor in a non-critical humor mindset to the extent they are prejudiced against the disparaged group. Finally, because prejudiced people are inclined to interpret disparagement humor in a non-critical humor mindset, they should perceive and assent to an emergent prejudiced norm in the immediate context, and use that norm to guide their own responses toward members of the targeted group (Ford & Ferguson, 2004). That is, upon exposure to disparagement humor, prejudiced people tend to perceive the immediate context as permissive of expressions of prejudice and thus feel comfortable expressing or releasing their own prejudice.

A growing body of empirical research has supported prejudiced norm theory showing that exposure to disparagement humor fosters a social climate that allows prejudiced individuals to freely and openly express their prejudice against the targeted group. Ford et al. (2001) found that men high in hostile sexism reported greater tolerance of a sexist event upon exposure to sexist humor. This effect was mediated by an emergent prejudiced norm—the perception that others in the immediate context viewed the sexist event as acceptable.

Similarly, Ford, Woodzicka, Triplett, Kochersberger, and Holden (2014, Exp. 1) examined whether exposure to anti-Muslim jokes promotes greater tolerance of discrimination against Muslims and whether that effect is mediated by perceptions of a prejudiced norm against Muslims. Participants imagined that they were a manager of a retail store who discriminated against a new Muslim employee by prohibiting her from waiting on customers because she was wearing a burqa. Furthermore, the manager asked the employee to, “please try to dress more American, not so … ethnic.” Participants reported feeling less badly about themselves for their imagined discrimination after reading anti-Muslim jokes versus neutral jokes or non-humorous anti-Muslim statements exchanged among (non-Muslim) employees in a small work group setting. Furthermore, this effect was mediated by a perception that others in the immediate context approved of the manager’s discrimination against the Muslim employee.

Recent research has expanded these investigations, showing that disparagement humor frees people to express their approval of broader, societal level discrimination against the targeted group. In a study by Ford, Woodzicka, Triplett, and Kochersberger (2013), male participants first completed Glick and Fiske’s (1996) hostile sexism scale, and then read either a series of sexist jokes, sexist statements that communicated the content of the sexist jokes but in a non-humorous manner, or neutral jokes. Finally, participants completed Jost and Kay’s (2005) measure of gender-specific system justification under the guise of a survey about the current state of gender relations. The results showed that men higher in hostile sexism reported greater tolerance of societal sexism (acceptance of the gender status quo) after reading sexist jokes versus neutral jokes or non-humorous sexist statements.

In addition, disparagement humor appears to affect people’s willingness to actually discriminate against the targeted group (e.g., Ford, Boxer, Armstrong, & Edel, 2008; Ford et al., 2014; Romero-Sanchez, Duran, Carretero-Dios, Megias, & Moya, 2010; Thomae & Viki, 2013; Viki, Thomae, Cullen, & Fernandez, 2007). Ford et al. (2008) examined the effect of sexist humor on men’s willingness to discriminate against women by presenting either sexist or neutral comedy skits to small groups of male participants. They found that hostile sexism predicted subsequent discrimination against women in the sexist comedy skit condition. Men higher in hostile sexism cut more money from the budget of a women’s organization relative to four other student organizations upon exposure to sexist comedy skits but not neutral comedy skits. Further, a perceived norm of approval of funding cuts for the women’s organization among other men in that context mediated the effect; sexist humor created a social norm in which hostile sexist men felt comfortable expressing their prejudice against women.

Ford et al. (2014) further demonstrated that social groups are differentially vulnerable to the prejudice-releasing effects of disparagement humor depending on the position they occupy in society. According to Crandall, Ferguson, and Bahns (2013), some groups occupy a unique social position of shifting acceptability characterized by a state change in the way society views discrimination against them. Prejudice against these groups is shifting from being completely justified to being completely unjustified. Although society is becoming increasingly accepting, many people still have mixed feelings about them. Ford et al. (2014) found that disparagement humor fosters discrimination against groups that occupy this social position of shifting acceptability but not against groups for whom prejudice is already socially acceptable or justified. In their study, disparagement humor promoted discrimination against Muslims and gay men. However, it did not foster discrimination against two justified prejudice groups: terrorists and racists. Expressions of prejudice against those groups did not depend on disparagement humor for justification.

An important implication of these findings is that some instances of disparagement humor are more detrimental than others because of the social position occupied by the groups they target. Movies, television programs or YouTube comedy clips that humorously disparage groups such as gays, Muslims, or women can potentially foster discrimination and social injustice, whereas those that target groups such as racists will have little social consequence.

Research by Romero-Sanchez et al. (2010) and Thomae and Viki (2013) extended the application of prejudice norm theory by showing that disparagement humor stretches the boundaries of acceptable conduct to include not only mild or subtle expressions of prejudice but also the propensity to commit violence against the targeted group. In both studies men reported a greater willingness to rape a woman upon exposure to sexist versus non-sexist humor. Consistent with prejudiced norm theory, Thomae and Viki (2013) found that only men high in hostile sexism reported greater rape proclivity upon exposure to sexist versus neutral humor.

Finally, Woodzicka, Mallett, Hendricks, and Pruitt (2015) and Mallet et al. (2016) expanded this line of research to address confrontation of sexist humor. Woodzicka et al. (2015) found that people are less likely to label disparaging jokes as discrimination compared to serious statements communicating the same underlying message. Consequently, people are less likely to deem humorous disparagement as “confrontation-worthy.” Mallett et al. (2016) further demonstrated that people do not confront sexist jokes because they do not ascribe sexist motives to the joke teller. By communicating that sexist sentiments should not be taken seriously, sexist humor makes ambiguous the intention of the joke teller (e.g., “Was that an expression of sexism or just an attempt to be funny?”), making the appropriateness of confrontation uncertain.

Mallett et al. (2016) further demonstrated that people do not confront sexist jokes because of the “disparagement humor paradox” described earlier. By disguising the denigration of women in a cloak of fun and amusement, sexist humor makes the intention of the joke teller ambiguous (e.g., “Was that an expression of sexism or just an attempt to be funny?”), and thus the appropriateness of confrontation uncertain. Indeed, participants were less likely to ascribe sexist motives when a person told sexist jokes versus non-humorous sexist remarks.

In sum, by denigrating an out-group in a socially acceptable manner, disparagement humor functions as a releaser of prejudice, fostering social conditions that encourage discrimination. Prejudiced norm theory provides a useful framework for understanding these findings.

Gutiérrez, Carretero-Dios, Willis, and Moya (2016) expanded upon these findings in three experiments that examined the effect of disparagement humor on in-group stereotyping.

In each of their experiments, they exposed college students either to humor that disparaged their university (in-group disparagement humor), to non-humorous disparagement of their university, or to neutral humor. Next, all participants wrote down four characteristics they considered typical of students at their university, and then they rated the favorability of each characteristic.

In Experiment 1, participants wrote more stereotypical descriptions of their university following exposure to in-group disparagement humor versus non-humorous disparagement of their university or neutral humor. However, participants did not differ across conditions in how favorably they rated the in-group (typical students at their university).

Experiments 2 and 3 expanded upon these findings by examining the role of in-group identification. Gutierrez et al. (2016) found that in-group disparagement humor increased stereotyping only among students who weakly identified with their university (low-identifiers). Specifically, only low-identifiers wrote more stereotypical descriptions of the in-group after exposure to in-group disparagement humor versus non-humorous disparagement or neutral humor.

Gutiérrez et al. (2016) explained these findings from the framework of prejudice norm theory. By communicating in-group stereotypes in a socially acceptable way, disparagement humor created a norm about how in-groupers “should” be seen that participants tacitly accepted.

Intergroup Humor as Subversion of Prejudice

As the discussion thus far suggests, disparagement humor can have detrimental effects on intergroup relations by reinforcing and releasing prejudice. However, if initiated with the positive intention to expose the absurdity and ugliness of prejudice, disparagement humor could ironically have beneficial intergroup consequences (e.g., Rappoport, 2005; Saucier, O’Dea, & Strain, 2016; Strain, Martens, & Saucier, 2016). Members of oppressed groups may appropriate disparagement humor in service of a number of positive intergroup functions: to dissociate the in-group from the derogatory content of the humor (Bianchi, 2014), to affirm in-group pride or solidarity (e.g., Bianchi, 2014; Boskin & Dorinson, 1985; Hom, 2008), to take a critical stance against the usual derogatory uses of stereotypes and slurs (Hom, 2008; Hornsby, 2001), and to remind people of the status quo of inequality and discrimination (Hom, 2008). Holmes and Marra (2002) referred to disparagement humor that has such constructive, status-quo-challenging social consequences as subversive humor.

Believing it has the potential to expose and subvert prejudice, many comedians (e.g., Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, Richard Pryor, Wanda Sykes, Louis C. K., Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, and Russell Peters) have incorporated subversive disparagement humor into their routines. Russell Peters, for instance, impersonates accents of different racial groups and pokes fun at racial stereotypes. His goal is not to offend members of targeted groups, but to affirm them through humor. Chris Rock similarly uses subversive disparagement humor to challenge the status quo of racial inequality and hierarchical race relations in the United States (Strain et al., 2016). The following excerpt from his opening monologue for the 2016 Academy Awards illustrates how he used humor to call attention to racism in the film industry and hierarchical race relations more generally:

I’m here at the Academy Awards, otherwise known as the White People’s Choice Awards. You realize if they nominated hosts, I wouldn’t even get this job. So y’all would be watching Neil Patrick Harris right now. It’s the 88th Academy Awards. It’s the 88th Academy Awards, which means this whole no black nominees thing has happened at least 71 other times. O.K.? You gotta figure that it happened in the 50s, in the 60s—you know, in the 60s, one of those years Sidney didn’t put out a movie. I’m sure there were no black nominees some of those years. Say ‘62 or ‘63, and black people did not protest. Why? Because we had real things to protest at the time, you know? We had real things to protest; you know, we’re too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won best cinematographer. You know, when your grandmother’s swinging from a tree, it’s really hard to care about best documentary foreign short. (Hollywoodreporter.com, Oscars: Read Chris Rock's Opening Monologue.)

The problem is that, for subversive humor to realize its goal of undermining prejudice, the audience must understand and appreciate its true intention, and there is no guarantee that they will (Saucier et al., 2016). The following excerpt from comedian Dave Chappelle’s interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2006 illustrates the interpretation problem with subversive humor. Chappelle discussed a skit about a pixie (played by Dave), which appeared in black face:

“There was a good-spirited intention behind it,” Dave says. “So then when I'm on the set, and we’re finally taping the sketch, somebody on the set [who] was white laughed in such a way—I know the difference of people laughing with me and people laughing at me—and it was the first time I had ever gotten a laugh that I was uncomfortable with. Not just uncomfortable, but like, should I fire this person?” Dave says some people understood exactly what he was trying to say with his racially charged comedy … while others got the wrong idea. (Oprah.com, Chappelle’s Story)

Vidmar and Rokeach (1974) found that people higher in prejudice are particularly prone to misinterpreting subversive humor. Vidmar and Rokeach studied amusement with the television show All in the Family, which focused on the bigoted character, Archie Bunker. They found that low-prejudiced people perceived All in the Family as a satire on bigotry and that Archie Bunker was the target of the humor. They “got” the true subversive intent of the show. In contrast, high-prejudiced people enjoyed the show for satirizing the targets of Archie’s prejudice. Thus, for high-prejudice people, the subversive disparagement humor of the show backfired. Rather than calling attention to the absurdity of prejudice, the show communicated an implicit prejudiced norm, a norm of tolerance of discrimination.

Conclusion

Humor fundamentally trivializes its topic and invites people to think about it playfully and non-seriously. Intergroup humor, humor that disparages a social group or its representatives thus disguises expressions of prejudice in a cloak of fun and frivolity, affording it the appearance of social acceptability. As a result, disparagement represents a pervasive mechanism for communicating prejudice as society has become increasingly sensitive to expressions of prejudice and other forms of offensive speech. Indeed, disparagement humor is pervasive and perhaps more readily available to us now in the digital age than ever before. The prevalence of intergroup disparagement humor in popular culture and its disguise as benign amusement or “just a joke” give it potential to have pervasive and complex social consequences in intergroup contexts. Indeed, a number of ways have been described where disparagement humor serves both as a social lubricant and as a social abrasive in intergroup settings. Disparagement humor is far more than “just a joke.” Thus, understanding and raising awareness of its potential consequences represents a critical project of social importance.

Further Reading

There are a number of excellent books and edited volumes that address intergroup humor. Goldstein and McGhee’s (1972) The Psychology of Humor is an edited volume that includes a chapter written by William H. Martineau entitled, “A Model of the Social Functions of Humor.” In this seminal work, Martineau delineated a broad theoretical model for deriving hypotheses about the ways that disparagement humor shapes social relationships. Martineau’s model has appealed to and inspired scholars in many disciplines and has guided a wealth of empirical research for over 40 years. Also, Chapman and Foot’s (1996) edited book entitled Humor and Laughter: Theory, Research and Applications is essential reading for those interested in intergroup humor. It includes critically important chapters by Dolf Zillmann and Joanne R. Cantor on disposition theory, and by Lawrence La Fave, Jay Haddad, and William A Maesen on vicarious superiority theory.

Martin’s (2007) The Psychology of Humor provides the most comprehensive review of the theoretical and empirical research on humor in psychology and related disciplines. The Psychology of Humor covers the central theories that lay the groundwork for our understanding of intergroup humor.

In contrast to Martin’s (2007) broad coverage of humor, Leon Rappoport’s (2005) Punchlines provides a very focused, but essential coverage of intergroup humor. Rappoport, a social psychologist, examines the appeal and functions of racial, ethnic, and gender humor. Rappoport’s stated purpose for the book is to provide a defense for such humor, arguing that it should not be dismissed as an expression of prejudice, but rather that it sometimes can function to subvert prejudice. Similarly, Michael Billig’s (2005) Laughter and Ridicule: Towards a Social Critique of Laughter offers a narrowly focused critical analysis of laugher and intergroup humor. Billig provides a historical and critical review of theories of ridicule (disparagement humor) and attempts to demonstrate that ridicule is central to social life. This book was intended for the more advanced student of humor, primarily psychologists and other social scientists.

In addition to these books, HUMOR: International Journal of Humor Research (HUMOR) is an essential resource for students of humor, and intergroup humor more specifically. In 2015, HUMOR published a special issue entitled “The Social Consequences of Disparagement Humor” (Vol. 28, Issue 2). The special issue includes eight articles that offer theoretical reviews or present new empirical findings on the effects of intergroup humor.

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