> Humour helps make sense of nonsense

Humour helps make sense of nonsense

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Travis Proulx, 778.868.0748, travis_proulx@sfu.ca
Julie Ovenell-Carter, PAMR, 778.782.5308, joc@sfu.ca

May 19, 2010

Simon Fraser University psychology professor Travis Proulx has discovered that people are threatened by experiences that don’t make sense—unless they find them funny.

In a paper to be published internationally in the June 2010 issue of the Personality and Social Psychological Bulletin, Proulx’s research team demonstrates that people respond to absurd art and literature—think Franz Kafka’s short stories or René Magritte’s paintings—with an increased need for order, sense and stability.

Explains Proulx: “When people contemplate things that don’t make sense to them, such as a surrealist painting or their own mortality, it generally motivates them to find structure elsewhere in their lives.”

However, he found that “when people have a senseless experience that they don’t expect to make any sense, it makes the experience more understandable and less threatening.

“Often, people accomplish this by finding humour in otherwise disturbing situations, essentially treating them as jokes—which are expected to be ridiculous.”

Proulx says his findings “provide empirical support for the practical value of finding humour in unexpected and/or unusual experiences. That is, people who can laugh at chaos may benefit because they are able to make sense of an experience that otherwise would have been disturbing to them.”


Proulx’s journal article is based on three separate research studies:

  • In the first study, subjects read an “absurd and hopeless” Kafka story, The Imperial Messenger, or the “encouraging” classic parable of The Tortoise and the Hare.  Afterwards, they were given the opportunity to affirm something meaningful: in this case, their national identity. The result? Those who’d read Kafka affirmed their nationalism more strongly. Says Proulx: “Kafka’s absurdity prompted them to affirm something else that did make sense to them—even when it had nothing to do with the absurd experience itself.”
  • In the second study, subjects read a bizarre Monty Python sketch, or a silly story with a clear punchline. This time they were given the chance to affirm their moral beliefs and again, those who read the absurd story were more passionate in their convictions—except for the people who either found the Python piece funny on their own or who were warned in advance that they were about to read something amusing.
  • In the final study, subjects viewed absurd art (Magritte’s The Son of Man), representational art (John Constable’s Landscape with a Double Rainbow), abstract art (Willem De Kooning’s Untitled WVI) or contemplated their mortality. They were then asked to express a preference for structure in the organization of their daily lives.
    Those who pondered surrealist art and the Grim Reaper claimed a greater need for order than those who looked on the abstract or landscape artwork. “Abstract art is less threatening because while it doesn’t make sense to most people, it doesn’t look like it’s supposed to make sense—which, in a way, makes sense of it,” says Proulx. “On the other hand, absurd art is disturbing because the elements are familiar but arranged in a way that makes no sense. It appears as though it should make sense—but it just doesn’t.”


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