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The Humor Quotient Newsletter

Vol. 10, No. 1 December 2008, Winona, MN


Preliminary Nursing Home Humor Preferences


After a hiatus of several years, HQN begins with this issue a new series of studies in humor and health.  It has been a busy year for HQN already in that its first decade of published discoveries have now been archived on the internet at  This year also saw the publication of Comedic Tenor, Comic Vehicle: Humor Texture in American Film Comedy (CTCV), a study of the inter-relationship between the humorous “feel” and generic meaning of comedy.  CTCV can also be found at CTCV features in its analysis many of the discoveries first published in HQN or announced during presentations at the International Society of Humor Studies (ISHS) peripatetic annual conferences internationally.  Also at can be found December Comedy, the collected conference papers of Robin Jaeckle Grawe, many of which were presented at ISHS conferences and many of which build on discoveries published in HQN.


Origins of ITCHS Involvement with Health Issues


As early as 1974, ITCHS staff member Paul Grawe was associated with Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, hosting a seminar for health professionals in Rochester, MN for which Dr. Kübler-Ross was the featured presenter.  Even at that time, Dr. Kübler-Ross had established a major international reputation for her work on death and dying, the attitudes of the health community toward such discussion, and the like.  Winona State University was honored to present such a forthright, rational, and ultimately sane look at key psychological realities of the health community.  HQN hopes that the investigations published here will share Dr. Kübler-Ross’ drive for psychological realism in health care industry issues.


Over the intervening years, Paul and Robin Grawe became active in ISHS, designed several humor tests, and found that one of these, the Humor Quotient Test (HQT) yielded so many impressive empirical results so quickly that HQN was established to get these results out without delay to the international scholarly community concerned with humor.  With this issue, we move entirely to e-publication and an even faster possible dissemination of research results.


Over the years of such empirical studies, Robin and Paul have been repeatedly blessed by the cooperation and insights of Rev. William Flesch, formerly pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod), Winona, MN and presently chaplain at Community Memorial Hospital, Winona, MN.  As chaplain, Pastor Flesch has instituted numerous humor-related group experiences particularly for residents of associated nursing home facilities.  And he has coordinated through the Institute for Travesty, Comedy, and Humor Studies (ITCHS) empirical studies of the differences between the humor of residents and staffs at Lake Winona Manor, an assisted living facility attached to Community Memorial Hospital.


The Humor Quotient Test and Humor of the Mind Humor Personalities


In 2007, ITCHS began testing at Lake Winona Manor using the Humor Quotient Test (HQT).  The test consists of 42 pairs of jokes, 21 cartoons, 21 narrative jokes.  For each pair, the respondent is asked to choose the funnier.  Four humor of the mind types of jokes are tested: Gotcha, Incongruity, Word Play, and Sympathetic Pain.  Each question pairs jokes of two distinct types.  Therefore, each of the four joke types is presented 21 times, 7 times against each of the other three types.


Extensive tests of over two thousand respondents have shown that many sociological and psychological variables are related to humor preference, particularly preference for combinations of two of the four humor types considered as a “humor personality.”  Especially relevant to Lake Winona Manor results were three personalities that include Sympathetic Pain as a preferred humor type.  Combined with a preference for Sympathetic Pain, a preference for Gotcha we call Bridgebuilder, for Word Play we call Consoler, and for Incongruity we call Reconciler. 


There are three personalities that do not have Sympathetic Pain as a preferred humor form: Intellectual (Incongruity and Word Play preference), Crusader (Incongruity and Gotcha), and Advocate (Gotcha and Word Play). (A fuller discussion of the six personalities and their rubrics can be found in Chapter 3 of Comedic Tenor, Comic Vehicle)


In 2008, testing of Lake Winona Manor staff with the HQT was completed.  The general hypothesis guiding these investigations was that nursing home staff (including nurses, dieticians, physical therapists, and the like) typically have trouble bringing humor into a generally depressed working environment in part because their sense of humor is distinctly different from the humor of the nursing home residents they serve.  This difference is largely a matter of stage of life.  The staffs are relatively young, active, professionally motivated.  Residents are relatively old, failing in numerous physical categories and possibly in mental categories as well, and dependent rather than independent.  Earlier testing had suggested that early-in-retirement respondents already showed an age shift in humor preference.  It was anticipated that the humor shift would perhaps be even more pronounced in nursing-home respondents


A preliminary discussion with Pastor Flesch and nursing administrators suggested the high advisability of shortening the test for nursing home residents.  It was decided that only the cartoons of HQT would be used.  Numerous tests for other sub-groups taking the HQT have consistently indicated that the cartoon half is a reasonable approximation of full-test results.


Test Administration Environment


Lake Winona Manor is a very modern, fully integrated nursing home facility attached to Community Memorial Hospital.  Staff are well-trained.  Accommodations are spacious, well-lit, attractive.  The manor looks out over a lawn on Lake Winona, making it altogether a hospitable, attractive, caring facility.


It should go without saying that despite all the modern amenities, residents of Lake Winona Manor are facing a great many health hardships and very limited time horizons.  If laughter is indeed the best medicine, conscious effort should be made in such modern facilities to make humor more available.


The great inhibitions to the perception of humor in this environment were immediately apparent as soon as we began to administer the HQT.  Failing eyesight was a hindrance to many.  Limited attention spans were a hindrance to others.  For some respondents, getting in touch with one’s own humor responses had to be balanced against difficulties in breathing,  expectoration problems, or the like.  It was absolutely necessary to enlist the assistance of outstandingly compassionate and patient staff to work through these problems, read jokes aloud to respondents, and sometimes to describe cartoon art which the respondent could not clearly distinguish.


Robin and Paul, who have administered the HQT over and over again in the last two decades, both left the testing area exhausted, never having experienced anything like the challenge of looking for humor responses in such a limited setting.  Both had largely concluded that the program would be a failure, that nothing useful could come from responses so obtained, that results had to be essentially random.


Sobering as such a conclusion might be to high hopes of any kind, the testing experience had proved something absolutely conclusively.  For the very old, the perception of humor is no longer pure delight.  It becomes work, and very hard work in some cases.  And given how very difficult the work was, residents’ willingness to participate, to try, to give it their best shot was very strong evidence that humanity does not give up its humor easily.  Even when humor is painful work rather than instinctive delight, people are willing to struggle to express their sense of humor, and that struggle obviously connects them to the world. 


We highly recommend that these results not be seen as platitudes.  They are realities, in many cases very grim realities which hospital and nursing home staffs can hardly over-appreciate.  If nothing else, these results suggest that:


1) The introduction of humor in such situations may be most successful when done in very small doses.  Better one joke perceived and appreciated than nursing home respondents exhausted in the work of humor perception.


2) Very obvious humor is very good humor in such nursing home situations.  Better an obvious joke perceived than a more artistic joke causing frustration.


3) Knowing what kind of humor is likely work is much more important in such environments than in the day-to-day environments in which most staff have been socialized to humor. 


Resident and Staff Humor Results


While there had been extensive staff facilitation of residents’ response to the HQT, Robin and Paul had been listening in and observing unobtrusively throughout, and neither of them spotted anything that would bias what HQT was trying to test.  Facilitating staff did not in fact know what the HQT was testing for and would not have been in a position to consciously bias the test.


As already indicated, however, statistical analysis was undertaken with a sense of hopelessness, a sense that responses that were so hard to get would necessarily also be random.


When tests were scored and entered in an Excel program, however, it was found that the results were anything but random.  As suggested by the test hypothesis, the results showed a very great shift in the direction already established for early-in-retirement respondents!


Later testing of the staff confirmed that Lake Winona Manor staff as a whole have a very different humor personality from Lake Winona Manor residents.  The staff profile is much more like what one would expect from other respondents in mid-career settings.


Key to the difference between staff and resident responses was a much greater appreciation of Sympathetic Pain jokes among residents.  A number of years ago, Robin and Paul had the opportunity to test an elderly, but independent group of retirees in Defiance, Ohio.  Interviewing one of the leaders of this group, Robin was told that when members of this group got together in smaller sub-groupings, their humor together centered on their infirmities and inabilities.  Humor had clearly become a matter of coping, and a laughing response was a sympathetic response, not a satirizing or demeaning response:  “That’s okay, friend, I know exactly how you feel.”—the typical response of laughing Sympathetic Pain humor.  If you are planning on living to a ripe old age, plan on developing an appreciation for Sympathetic Pain humor if you expect to share the experience of aging with peers.


Implications for Humor Personality


As anticipated above, respondent preference for Sympathetic Pain humor means that they will be disproportionately represented in the three humor personality types which we have labeled Reconciler, Consoler, and Bridgebuilder.  By the same token, they will be under-represented in the three humor personality types which we have labeled Intellectual, Crusader, and Advocate.  These rubrics are telling, and what we think they tell is that the very old are likely to respond much better to attitudes of reconciliation, consolation and bridge-building (and bridge repairing) and much less well to attitudes of intellectualization, crusading, and advocacy.


The profundity of the humor gap between staff and residents is best told in a picture easily worth a thousand words.  Please note in the following graph, how residents are better than four times more likely to test as Consolers and 60% more likely to test as Bridgebuilders than staff.


Figure 1


More directly as a matter of humor development among staff, it would seem that staff will be most effective at sharing humor with residents if their humor can stress Sympathetic Pain, can look for a laughing response that embodies the feeling-thought, “That’s okay, I know exactly how you feel.”  Since Sympathetic Pain humor asks for the humorous equivalent of sympathy, it is a relatively vulnerable type of humor.  Staffs are likely to be more successful in humor with residents when they are willing to be less than perfectly in control and in charge themselves.


Getting familiar with Sympathetic Pain humor


Many other articles in HQN have focused on Sympathetic Pain, and whole chapters of CTCV give it major attention.  There are few short-cuts to developing this kind of humor, and unfortunately, it has been little studied in literary terms. 


However, for those wanting a short course in Sympathetic Pain humor, it is fortunate that American film and television comedy have been great experimenters in its development.  Charlie Chaplin’s little bum is perhaps the great instigator.  In more recent times, Bob Newhart did in fact have a new heart for a feeling kind of humor in which we laugh with him, not at him, and see our own dilemmas in him.  Bill Cosby as standup comedian had us rolling in the aisles as we relived the pain of our own families as retold in his, and as cartoon creator, Cosby as Fat Albert is the vulnerable, human, and thus finally triumphant overcomer.  John Candy in many ways brought Fat Albert out of animation into real life.  And Steve Martin has been most amazing where he has made us laugh at him and nevertheless with him in sympathy at the same time.


Implementation of Insights Gained


There were other insights gained from this testing program than simply the dominance of Sympathetic Pain humor.  In the next issue of HQN, we intend consider the special place of Word Play for older respondents.


Under the leadership of Pastor Flesch, Lake Winona Manor has begun implementing a program to bring in small doses of the kinds of humor that are most likely to work given the results outlined above of our testing program.  The challenge is to bring in the right humor in such a way that staff is not exhausted on humor initiation which is likely to be seen as a burdensome addition to primary workload.


To this end, cartoonists were enlisted to provide cartoons with the kind of humor Lake Winona Manor residents seem most able to appropriate.  Cartoons were laminated and placed on dining room tables in the Manor, to be shifted at appropriate, approximately weekly intervals from table to table.  It is hoped hat such small-dose humor will prove useful to the caring ambiance of the manor. 


Inquiries for the use of such cartoon materials in nursing home settings or the like should be addressed to:


Paul Grawe

Winona State University


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