ISSN 1671-3710
CN 11-4766/R

Advances in Psychological Science ›› 2022, Vol. 30 ›› Issue (3): 670-683.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1042.2022.00670

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Disparagement humor: Could laughter dissolve hostility?

LI Longjiao, WANG Fang()   

  1. Beijing Key Laboratory of Applied Experimental Psychology, National Demonstration Center for Experimental Psychology Education (Beijing Normal University), Faculty of Psychology, Beijing Normal University, Beijing 100875, China
  • Received:2021-04-02 Online:2022-03-15 Published:2022-01-25
  • Contact: WANG Fang


Disparagement humor refers to communication that derogates or denigrates a certain target but elicits amusement. Blending two contradictory elements in terms of social approvability, the paradox of disparagement humor has sparked three major questions: how does amusement arise from disparagement? What determines whether an attempt at disparagement humor is perceived to be funny or offensive? What are the unique aftereffects of this fusion? Four major theoretical frameworks have been proposed to understand the psychological mechanism of disparagement humor. From a psychoanalytic perspective, relief theory suggests that the entertainment of humor comes from the catharsis of hostility. From an intergroup perspective, superiority theory suggests that the feeling of superiority generated by the disparagement of others leads to humorous experiences. From a cognitive perspective, incongruity-resolution theory suggests that humor derives from the resolution of incongruencies. Additionally, from a cognitive perspective, to provide a more accurate and universal explanation for humor than incongruity-resolution theory, benign violation theory suggests that humor comes from appraising something as both a violation and benign. Among the theories, the former two address the unique motivational factors underlying disparagement humor, while the latter two provide universal cognitive models to explain all humor, including disparagement humor. Thus, a motivational cognition model proposed later in the article could effectively depict an integrated picture of the psychological mechanism of disparagement humor. However, people do not necessarily find disparagement humor funny; sometimes it is offensive. Factors influencing the reception of disparagement humor include group identities and attitudes, psychological distance between the recipient and the object of derogation, and personal and cultural differences. The social effects of humor and derogatory comments are usually opposite, but the fusion of the two can produce unique outcomes. First, it can serve as a prejudice releaser by creating a social norm that allows the expression of prejudice, which is normally forbidden in modern society. In addition, the use of disparagement humor can serve to reinforce social hierarchies by functioning as a legitimizing myth that justifies expressions of social dominance motivations. Conversely, when disparagement humor is used by a disadvantaged social group to subvert an inequitable social hierarchy, the strategy of covering an insubordinate message with humor may encourage the expression of subversion and thus promote social equity. Finally, the impacts of disparagement humor on interpersonal interactions are inconsistent due to the contradictory effects of disparagement and humor. After reviewing the relevant theories and studies, we propose an integrated process model of disparagement. The model takes benign violation theory as its fundamental framework, dividing the completion of disparagement humor into three parts: first, the expresser delivers disparagement; second, the audience evaluates the disparagement as benign; and third, a sense of humor is produced. The model also integrates the motivational perspectives of relief theory and superiority theory by addressing motivational factors in the delivery and evaluation process. In addition, the model displays the retroaction of disparagement humor’s aftereffects on its delivery and evaluation by combining the prejudice-releaser and legitimizing-myth role of disparagement humor. As it depicts a comprehensive process and captures the dynamism of disparagement humor, the model can hopefully serve as a scaffold for future research. It is also important for future research to explore the negative effects of disparagement humor. Moreover, the potentially positive effects of disparagement humor on intergroup relations and social justice when used by disadvantaged groups to fight social injustice merit investigation. Finally, it could be rewarding to study the cultural distinctiveness of disparagement humor in certain aspects of Chinese culture, such as its essential foreignness and prosperous localization, the commercialization trend of disparagement jokes, and the specifically Chinese content conveyed and popularized by disparagement humor.

Key words: disparagement humor, benign violation theory, prejudice, social dominance theory

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