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Smart, Emotionally Stable People Enjoy Morbid Humor

A taste for the grotesque is no reason for embarrassment.
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A woman enters her living room to find the body of her husband, who has hung himself with his tie, dangling from a light fixture. Clearly peeved, she complains: “Come on! Once again, the green tie with the blue suit!”

Did you find that amusing? If so, did you feel a little sheepish that you laughed at such a morbid joke?

Well, don’t be. People who appreciate gallows humor tend to be smarter, better-educated, and better emotionally adjusted than most.

That’s the conclusion of a newly published study from Austria. A research team led by neurologist Ulrike Willinger of the Medical University of Vienna reports appreciating black humor “seems to be a complex information-processing task,” one that is facilitated by high intelligence and inhibited by bad moods.

The study, published in the journal Cognitive Processing, featured 156 adults who looked at and evaluated 12 cartoons featuring black humor, including the above vignette. The researchers define the term as “a kind of humor that treats sinister subjects like death, disease, deformity, handicap, or warfare with bitter amusement.”

Participants reported how much they liked each cartoon, and how easy or difficult it was to understand, on a one-to-four scale. They also took standard tests measuring verbal and non-verbal attention, their level of aggressiveness, and current mood.

To the researchers’ surprise, those who liked the cartoons most, and found them easiest to comprehend, demonstrated high levels of intelligence, tended to be well-educated, and had the “lowest values regarding mood disturbance and aggression.”

Those least likely to “get” and/or appreciate the humor tended to have average intelligence levels, “as well as high mood disturbance and high aggressiveness.”

Intuitively, one would think aggressive, irritated people would be more likely to enjoy dark humor, not less. To explain their results, the researchers point to previous research that found “preference for sick humor is related to the ability to treat nasty contents as playful fiction.”

Depressed or angry people are, perhaps, less able to treat the material in such a lighthearted way. Or their emotional issues inhibit their cognitive processing abilities, making it harder to “get” and therefore enjoy the joke.

Either way, “aggressiveness and bad mood apparently lead to decreased levels of pleasure when dealing with black humor,” Willinger and her colleagues conclude. So if you’re laughing at a sick joke, chances are you are pretty sharp mentally, and in reasonably good shape emotionally.

That’s good to know. Something tells me dark humor is going to come in very handy over the next few years.