Recently, research interest in the general area of emotions has experienced a renewal. Donald Gibson (1995) has written about emotional scripts, Howie Weiss (1996) has investigated the effects of affect in the workplace and Kevin Daniels (1998) has written about the impact of emotions in strategic planning. Some authors have revisited the fit between the emotionality of job candidates and the emotion-provoking characteristics of the jobs themselves (Arvey, Renz, & Watson, 1998) while others have addressed international differences in the affect experienced at work (Iwata et al., 1998).

Much of this work has focused on the negative emotions (Han, Weed, Calhoun, & Butcher, 1995; Mano, 1999; McConnell, Niedermeier, Leibold, & El-Alayli, 2000; Nabi, 1998; Schaubroeck, Judge, & Taylor III, 1998) and their undesirable consequences (Griffin, Kelly, & Collins, 1998; Kuiper, Olinger, & Martin, 1988; Pelled & Xin, 1999). Some work takes a more balanced approach to both positive and negative affect (Abele & Rank, 1994; Bohner, Crow, Erb, & Schwarz, 1992; Burke, Brief, George, & Roberson, 1989; Cropanzano, James, & Konovsky, 1993; Daniels, 1998; Keating & Kuykendall, 1990; Mittal & Ross Jr., 1998; Njus, Nitschke, & Bryant, 1996; Petty, Richman, Schumann, & Strathman, 1993; Russell & Carroll, 1999; Sharma, 1999; Shaw, Duffy, Jenkins Jr., & Gupta, 1999; Watson & Slack, 1993). Some work even focuses specifically on positive affect (Crooker & Near, 1998; DeNeve & Cooper, 1998; Isen, Daubman, & Nowicki, 1987; Tierney, 1991; Yoon & Lim, 1999).

This author prefers to devote a life of study to more positive experiences, and one of these is humor.

Humor is a ubiquitous phenomenon that has been discussed by many of our best thinkers. Investigations of humor have existed as least since the time of Aristotle. Like any human experience, humor also appears occasionally as an issue at work. Its behavioral manifestation, laughter, is credited with boosting the immune system, providing a form of exercise, and building communities when shared. A sense of humor is thought to provide a healthy perspective on psychological problems and to help with creative problem solving.

Leadership charisma (Avolio, Howell, & Sosik, 1999) and flexibility (Gelkopf & Kreitler, 1996) can be enhanced with the judicious use of humor. It makes the job atmosphere pleasant and vents stress that may otherwise turn into aggression (Decker, 1987). Ambient humor (e.g., jokes sent on facsimile machines) can be gathered and analyzed as an indicator of job satisfaction or to identify unpopular people and groups (Bennett, 1991). The prevalence and type of humorous interaction in teams can be used as a measure of the level of intimacy they have achieved (Banning & Nelson, 1987).

Humor consultants report that there is a humor movement, and indeed many companies espouse the importance of a fun workplace. The idea promises to instill loyalty and commitment in workers made cynical by routine layoffs; to increase motivation without much investment or power-sharing. Humor is thought to support team cohesion (today's substitute for company loyalty), and a fun workplace is known to be more attractive to expensive and needed technical workers.

However, most companies (96%) do not employ humor consultants (Mercer survey, 1999) and there may be two main reasons for this. One is that the claims for humor's effectiveness seem exaggerated and untested, and the other is that use of humor in the workplace has real pitfalls that can counteract its benefits.

Unfortunately, many of the claims for the effectiveness of humor are made by those who profit from its use, such as humor consultants and advertising agencies. Practitioners substitute enthusiasm for rigor, sprinkling their writing with phrases like research has established and research has shown, without offering citations. Those familiar with humor research often recognize such claims as unscientific.

One advocate, for example, tells the story of an advertising campaign for Lavoris mouthwash in Quebec (Middleton & Dalla Costa, 1997, p. 42-3). The sponsor hired a clown named Oncle Georges as its spokesperson. Georges' endorsement of the product led to strong sales results. The authors attribute this success to the fact that the Oncle Georges was a humorist. However, it is clear from the story that Oncle Georges was also renowned for his frank talk. It was almost certainly this reputation that bolstered his credibility. Had Oncle Georges hosted a radio talk show with frank talk and no humor, his credibility might have been just as strong; an alternate hypothesis that the writers blissfully ignore in their enthusiasm for humor. This is just the sort of unreflective polemic that makes humor advocacy seem irresponsible.

Not only are the benefits of using humor in doubt, but the pitfalls of its misuse are quite salient. Humor is delicate and, except in cases of natural ability, cannot be used successfully without training and practice. The over-use of humor can reduce a speaker's credibility or lead to task avoidance. Sooner or later, the spontaneous use of humor is bound to offend a client, boss, or member of an under-privileged group (Morgenson, 1989). This can result in expensive lawsuits (Fitzgerald, 1988) and soiled reputations (The new office etiquette., 1993). Even when most people find the humor acceptable, some onlookers may be offended (Bergmann, 1986). This is especially difficult to manage as the workplace becomes more heterogeneous and it can no longer be assumed that listeners will understand a joker's intentions.

Humor, of course, is not a new phenomenon in business. In the areas of training and advertising, humor has long been counted upon to relax trainees and aid recall. There is a large body of research analyzing the effectiveness of humor in advertising different types of products (e.g., Weinberger & Gulas, 1992; Zinkhan & Gelb, 1990). In all these cases, humor is being used to support communications that attempt to persuade others. Accordingly, this study takes as its focus the effectiveness of humor in persuasion. This work follows in the footsteps of earlier researchers on the topic (e.g., Kennedy, 1972; Kilpela, 1961; Markiewicz, 1973).

Previous research on the effectiveness of humor in persuasion has produced conflicting and inconclusive results. There have been untrustworthy positive results due to poor specification of constructs, inadequate controls for internal validity, and irresponsible use of statistical analysis. There have been untrustworthy negative results due to sterile laboratory conditions, failure to develop specific predictions grounded in theory, and equivocation among types of humor (Markiewicz, 1974).

To address these issues, the separate literatures on humor, humor in the workplace, and persuasion are reviewed. Characterizations of humor and humorous interaction are developed and discussed. A conceptual foundation is laid and propositions are generated about which types of humor will be effective and when. This is an attempt to go beyond empirical generalizations to the development and testing of theory.

An experiment is designed to test these propositions. It takes advantage of The Ethics Challenge, a board game used by Lockheed Martin to persuade its employees to consult company officials when faced with an ethical dilemma. The research design achieves maximum internal validity and rigorously tests causal relationships. Statistical analyses are sensitive to very small effects.

This study, like all studies, is based on certain presumptions that flow primarily from the perspective of the investigator. This study is concerned with humor rather than laughter. While the humor background addresses the nature of humor, it is the effectiveness of humor that is the focus of the experiment. The study focuses on individuals (rather than groups, organizations, or society) and takes a psychological perspective. It does not address notions of social construction or gender and diversity issues except as they naturally arise in the course of the investigation.


© 2001, James Bruce Lyttle