Why Do We Use Dark Humour to Deal With Terrifying Situations?

By Daniel Kolitz on at

Life’s hard for the humourless – loved ones die, hurricanes and infections ravage the planet, and all they can do is sit around and grieve about it. Some of us, meanwhile, watching our houses burn down and our spouses succumb to hazily-understood pancreatic ailments, can at least leaven the pain with a well-timed joke. As distraction, coping mechanism or aid to acceptance, dark humour has helped millions through crushing personal and/or world-historical ordeals. For this week’s Giz Asks we reached out to a number of experts to suss out the reasons behind this dark phenomenon.


Peter McGraw

Professor of Marketing at University Colorado Boulder, Director of the Humor Research Lab, co-author of The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, and author of Shtick to Business: What the Masters of Comedy Can Teach You about Breaking Rules, Being Fearless, and Building a Serious Career

To answer this question, you first need to answer the question of what humour is in the first place. The work we’ve done in the Humor Research Lab suggests that people laugh at things that are “wrong yet okay,” “threatening yet safe,” or what we call “benign violations.” These are all predicated on something that threatens the way we think the world ought to be. Tragedies, calamities, pandemics – these are all great fodder for jokes, because they already satisfy half the requirement: the wrong, the threat, the violation.

As for why people pursue dark comedy: there’s what I call the “thermostat approach,” in which you’re using a joke to change the temperature in the room (i.e., that you are using comedy to cope); and there’s what I call the “thermometer approach,” where you are revealing the temperature in the room by your joke (i.e., using comedy to show that you have successfully coped).

People’s ability to cope and the value of humour is profound. In my first book, The Humor Code, my co-author and I spoke to a Holocaust survivor, who talked about how there were, at times, moments of laughter and levity in her concentration camp. So if the victims of the worst genocide in history were able to cope with that, we should be able to deal with the threat of this virus – as most of the fear, in this situation, has to do with its uncertainty. So, send your friends memes – or check out that romcom that you have been meaning to watch.

“The work we’ve done in the Humor Research Lab suggests that people laugh at things that are ‘wrong yet okay,’ ‘threatening yet safe,’ or what we call ‘benign violations.’ These are all predicated on something that threatens the way we think the world ought to be. Tragedies, calamities, pandemics – these are all great fodder for jokes, because they already satisfy half the requirement: the wrong, the threat, the violation.”

Alex M. Borgella

Assistant Professor, Psychology, Fort Lewis College, whose research focuses on the consequences of disparagement humour, among other things

When I’m speculating about the reasons why humour is used in a seemingly inappropriate situation, I first look at its potential to reduce anxiety and stress. The extant research on the general benefits of humour typically home in on its use as a method of anxiety-reduction in a variety of different situations, like team-building, memory, student performance in schools, and a variety of others. Broadly speaking, the vast majority of research on humour reports it as an incredibly powerful tool that facilitates social bonds and increases psychological well-being.

For example, I’ve done some research on seemingly ironic social outcomes of self-deprecating humour, where we typically find decreases in stress responses amongst both the humour's recipients – i.e., the audience – and, more strangely, the humorist themselves. To put it another way: if you can imagine the stress associated with giving a big speech at some large event, research shows you might be able to reduce it by starting off with a solid, self-directed joke. Though a little more complicated, a lot of my work demonstrates similar effects even with identity-related humour, like race, gender, sexuality, and religious affiliation.

Though it seems even more counterintuitive, dark humour might be an equally viable method of anxiety reduction in dire situations that seem completely hopeless or out of a person’s control. This type of humour is typically found alongside death and destruction – amongst doctors and nurses in hospital emergency rooms and oncology units, soldiers in the trenches during wars, wartime refugees, first responders, and many others – and serves an important, albeit a seemingly callous, function: to keep spirits high, stress low, and maintain a sense of humanity where none seems to exist. The jokes told by folks in these situations might seem inappropriate or even intolerable to an outside observer, but are commonly reported to be integral to the well-being of the humorists themselves.

Looking at the situation we’re in right now with covid-19 rapidly spreading across the planet, I think it’s especially important to consider these issues when weighing the ethics of the humour used by medical professionals specifically. A doctor or nurse making a joke about a patient’s deteriorating condition might seem crude and inappropriate, but this humour isn’t intended to be overheard by the patients themselves or anyone not “behind the curtain.” Provided this is the case and we cannot make a good faith claim that psychological harm is being done – i.e., humour is not being used to “bully” a patient – we ought to be tolerant toward any strategy that helps those who need it maintain a sense of humanity.

“Though it seems even more counterintuitive, dark humour might be an equally viable method of anxiety reduction in dire situations that seem completely hopeless or out of a person’s control.”

Janet Gibson

Professor, Psychology, Grinnell College

There are many reasons we like to use dark humour to deal with terrifying or anxiety-inducing situations. I am a psychology professor at Grinnell College, and I recently read research on dark humour for my textbook on the psychology of humour. Researchers report on the advantages of humour, and dark humour in particular, to deal with stress.

1) We use humour to cope with stress. Humour helps us to feel good – humour is self-medication when stress threatens. Laughing may also produce endorphins which help to elevate our mood and buffer threats to our immune system. Humour helps increase our ability to control the situation.

2) Humour involves deviations from social norms. Dark humour exploits these deviations from social and moral norms. Instead of being offended (which happens sometimes), we are amused when we are surprised, when social expectations are violated, when we see that the literal meaning is absurd but the funny meaning has some truth in it. For example, recently people poked fun at toilet paper hoarding – the hoarding is absurd and the poking fun makes sense.

3) Terrifying situations produce anxiety. Death anxiety, in particular, is very common. We use humour to deal with this anxiety, to deliberately poke fun at the very things which terrify us. Getting the joke in some ways is like having control over our fears, to feel assured we are alive.

4) Research shows that liking dark humour does not mean you are sick or demented. Liking it typically means you are coping well with your anxiety. You need a healthy mind to be able to experience pleasant feelings. We tend to lose our sense of humour when we are depressed. But if you can find humour in the double meanings of life, then you have good defence mechanisms. For this reason, some therapists will use humour to help clients see the multiple perspectives of situations; the depressed or terrifying view is only one view; there are also the positive and heroic sides, turning problems into challenges, turning social distance and isolation into solitude and space for creativity. In fact, being able to see the multiple interpretations of situations, including terrifying ones, is valuable for flexible, executive functions of thinking and decision making. This is why research finds that liking dark humour is correlated with education and not liking it is correlated with anxiety and depression.

“Getting the joke in some ways is like having control over our fears, to feel assured we are alive.”

Willibald Ruch

Head of Section, Psychology, University of Zurich, whose research interests include humour, cheerfulness, and dispositions towards ridicule, among other things

Humour is used to deal with terrifying situations because it reduces tension, uncertainty, and anxiety. It’s quite a good way of dealing with stress – it helps you see the light side of the situation, to see it from a different perspective, which improves your mood and reduces negative emotion. But the fact that the humour is ‘dark’ is just a byproduct of the situation: if the situation you were dealing with was receiving more gifts than expected on your birthday, you likely wouldn’t resort to dark humour, because the situation itself is pleasant. So it’s not that dark humour is used intentionally – it’s that finding the light-hearted side of a bad situation by nature requires darker humour.

“It’s not that dark humour is used intentionally – it’s that finding the light-hearted side of a bad situation by nature requires darker humour.”

Adrienne Wood

Assistant Professor of Psychology and Principal Investigator of the Emotion and Behaviour Lab at the University of Virginia

I think of humour as a form of cognitive play, so it helps to begin by considering the functions of play more generally. A huge range of species, including humans, do it. Play includes spontaneous and often exaggerated behaviours that do not contribute to immediate survival. During play, the brain releases opioids that feel good, help us recover from stress, and strengthen social bonds.

Also, many play behaviours are “as-if” versions of more serious grown-up behaviours. Think of kids playing house or kittens pretending to pounce on a toy. It’s thought that playing helps us build the skills necessary for those functional grown-up behaviours. All in all, play helps us replenish emotional resources and build social and practical skills to deal with future challenges.

Humour is play for social animals with giant brains, like us. Humour tends to rely on benign violations – violating expectations in a safe, “as-if” context. In other words, if something is framed as humour, people are more likely to process its meaning without taking it seriously. Humour gives us distance, and sometimes with distance, we gain a new perspective. This means we can use humour to examine and make sense of otherwise threatening ideas. By making light of the terrifying situation, we can also recover from stress and be better-prepared to deal with stress in the future.

There’s a lesson to be learned by considering dark humour to be just another form of play. Animals and humans only play when they feel safe. You wouldn’t enjoy a game of charades in the middle of a burglary, and puppies wouldn’t engage in rough-and-tumble play if they felt threatened. So if you’re going to deploy dark humour, I think you should wait for moments when people around you feel relatively safe and the threat isn’t imminent.

“Humour gives us distance, and sometimes with distance, we gain a new perspective.”

Sophie Scott

Professor, Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London, whose research focuses on the cognitive neuroscience of voices, speech and laughter, among other things

Laughter is primarily a social behaviour – it’s something we do to make and maintain social bonds. It’s also something we use to deal with stress. We laugh to regulate our emotional states in stressful situations. It’s not a human-specific behaviour: other mammals laugh. What humans brought was humour – comedy. From very early on in the archaeological record, humans are making jokes about the world.

There is a scientific literature that looks at dark humour in particular situations, with much of that research focused on high-stress professions like medicine and law enforcement. People in these professions tend to heavily deploy humour that would be dark or sort of shocking to people outside their professional circles, which is not uncorrelated with its purpose: they’re using laughter as a way of coping with stress, to make the specific stress they’re dealing with more tolerable, and to increase and maintain the bonds they have with their fellow team members. Which is a crucial function, as these are professions where people really need to work as a team. This type of humour is also designed to exclude people who don’t get the joke, which is part of their power for the in-group.

You can see some of these factors in the situation we’re in now. Everybody’s suffering to some degree from exactly the same stressful issue, and no one can just walk away from it. People have very naturally turned to humour as a way of coping with that – to generate reasons to laugh. You and your friends are in on the joke, and it helps you feel better together.

“People in these professions tend to heavily deploy humour that would be dark or sort of shocking to people outside their professional circles, which is not uncorrelated with its purpose: they’re using laughter as a way of coping with stress, to make the specific stress they’re dealing with more tolerable, and to increase and maintain the bonds they have with their fellow team members.”

Featured image: Illustration: Angelica Alzona (Gizmodo)