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International Journal of Humor Research

Editor-in-Chief: Ford, Thomas E.

4 Issues per year

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Joking in the face of death: A terror management approach to humor production

Christopher R. Long
  • Ouachita Baptist University
  • :
/ Dara N. Greenwood
  • Vassar College
Published Online: 2013-04-26 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/humor-2013-0012


Terror management theory has spawned a body of experimental research documenting a multitude of defensive responses to mortality salience manipulations (e.g., rigid adherence to dominant cultural values, self-esteem bolstering). Another substantive body of work suggests that humor functions as a natural and often effective means of down-regulating stressful or traumatic experiences. Integrating a terror management paradigm with a cartoon captioning task, the present study finds that participants subliminally primed with death wrote funnier captions than those primed with pain, as judged by outside raters. Interestingly, a reverse pattern was obtained for participants' own ratings of their captions; explicitly death-primed participants rated themselves more successful at generating humorous captions than their pain-primed counterparts, while no significant difference emerged between the two subliminal priming conditions. Findings contribute new insights to recent research suggesting that death reminders may sometimes facilitate creativity and open-mindedness.

Keywords: humor; terror management; mortality; creativity

Christopher R. Long

Christopher R. Long is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Ouachita Baptist University.

Dara N. Greenwood

Dara Greenwood is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Vassar College.

Published Online: 2013-04-26

Published in Print: 2013-10-25

Citation Information: Humor. Volume 26, Issue 4, Pages 493–509, ISSN (Online) 1613-3722, ISSN (Print) 0933-1719, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/humor-2013-0012, April 2013

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