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The Humor Quotient Newsletter

Vol. 13, No. 1 April, 2011 Winona, MN

Multi-Group Investigation of Vitalist Humor and Aging


Since 2008, the Institute for Travesty, Comedy and Humor Studies (ITCHS) has been conducting group experiments in vitalist humor with adults beyond college age.  The primary goal of this research has been to determine if there are tendencies for Vitalitst humor preference to change with aging.


On the basis of comparison of seven very diverse  adult groups, it seems quite clear that 1) vitalist humor preference does migrate with age and 2)  that such changes in preference are easily within  a basic theoretical  sense of what Vitalist scores reflect in the human psyche.


The Expanded Langer-Bergson Vitalist Humor Test (ELBVHT)


As reported in earlier issues of HQN, ITCHS has expanded an early Langer-Bergson Vitalist Humor Test (LBVHT) of 12 preference questions to 24 preference questions in the ELBVHT.  In the LBVHT, four subtypes of Langerian and Bergsonian vitalist humors were established (Tenacity, Potential, Creativity, and Performance).  Each of these four subtypes can occur in Langerian or Bergsonian voice: a joke may ask us in Langerian fashion to laugh with the extraordinarily alive or in Bergsonian fashion to laugh at death creeping into life, the mechanical encrusting itself on the living.  In this earlier test, each subtype was tested in three preference questions, each question pitting a Langerian joke of that subtype against a Bergsonian joke of that  same subtype (thus, for example, three preference questions pitting Langerian Tenacity  against Bergsonian Tenacity).




Compared to the humor-of-the-mind Humor Quotient Test (HQT) which has been heavily reported on in HQN and which has a total of 42 preference questions, the LBVHT is a very slight test with corresponding inability to make fine discriminations in preference for joke subtypes.  Nevertheless, LBVHT testing of better than 300 ITCHS associates did result in many high-confidence results about Vitalist humor, starting from results that showed that overall preference for Langerian or Bergsonian humor is correlated to diverse  life preferences, which results have been periodically reported in HQN.


As with the HQT, we have interpreted LBVHT results in terms of “humor personalities,” combinations of two preferred types of Langerian or Bergsonian Humor (thus, for example, preference for Langerian Tenacity and Potential we have called “Nurturer.” personality.)


In the ELBVHT, the first 12 questions remain those of the LBVHT. The second half, rather than pitting Langerian and Bergsonian jokes against one another, pits two Langerian or two Bergsonian jokes against one another. (Thus, there will be one question that pits Langerian Tenacity, for example, against Langerian Performance and one that pits Bergsonian Tenacity against Bergsonian Performance.) Half of the 12 questions pairs Bergsonian jokes, the other  half  pairs Langerian jokes


In the first half, the number of Langerian preferences and the number of Bergsonian preferences varies by respondent, but the total number of Langerian plus Bergsonian choices of any subtype always equals 3.


In the second half, the number of Langerian and the number of Bergsonian preferences is always six each.  But the number of subtype preferences (Langerian Tenacity, for example) varies by respondent and thus, the total number of Langerian and Bergsonian preferences for a subtype like Tenacity also varies by respondent.


Thus the discriminating power among subtypes is doubled (and made complex) by the doubling of questions in the ELBVHT. 




Groups Tested


We are highly indebted to seven groups since 2008 who have taken the ELBVHT, several of whom have had a direct interest in the affects-of-aging-on-humor question.


In order of the average age of group, these seven groups include:


Minnesota Care Providers, assisted living and nursing home professionals attending an ITCHS session on humor and aging at the Minnesota Care Providers’ annual convention in Minneapolis, Minnesota, November, 2009.  This group breaks down into sub-groups like nursing staff, social service staff, pastoral staff, and the like. Average decadal age = 3.8; total  usable responses = 95


The McCauley Group, respondents within the extended family and assorted snowbird friends of Margaret and Maurice McCauley.  The McCauleys have been key academic and social support for ITCHS throughout its existence.  Now in their eighties, “Mac” is a former state legislator and professor emeritus of physics at Winona State University, and Margaret is one of the truly extraordinary community organizers of our time.  The McCauleys did their testing during the winter of 2010.  Average decadal age = 4.4; total usable responses = 20


PEO Chapter CS. Winona, MN, members of this study/service club who were interested in learning about humor and aging.  Average decadal age =  5.6; total usable responses = 11.


Carleton Class of ’69 Reunion Group, participants in the 2009 Carleton college reunion.   The class of 1969 sponsored an ITCHS presentation at the reunion, and that class and spouses graciously participated in vitalist testing as part of their activities at reunion.  If the McCauley Group represents a very wide age spread of a multi-generational family and friends, the Carleton Group respondents is very tightly concentrated around age 61. Average decadal age = 6.1; total usable responses = 20.





Winona Health Auxiliary, hospital volunteers   Winona Health and ITCHS have cooperated in major investigations of mental humor preference among nursing home residents and staff.  ITCHS has had a long-term consultative relationship both with nursing home staff and chaplaincy staff in bringing more humor into the nursing home.  Winona Auxiliary volunteers met to hear about these efforts and discoveries made in cooperation with Winona Health, and to aid research in vitalist humor preference. Average decadal age = 6.4; total usable responses = 54.


Bethany on Cass Group, residents of Bethany on Cass assisted living facility in La Crosse, Wisconsin, assembled to hear what our research had already found for mental humor and aging. Average decadal age = 8.1; total usable responses = 11.


Watkins Manor Group, residents of Watkins Manor assisted living facility in Winona, Minnesota. Average decadal age = 8.4; total usable responses = 12.


All previous humor testing by ITCHS has indicated that groups are somewhat self-sorting with respect to humor and that, therefore, each group within a multiple-group study will have some humor idiosyncratic leaning marked enough for some statistical statement.  With this caveat, the seven groups in this study represent a very wide range of average ages and generally represent reasonably well-off, middle-class Americans with general ex-urban Midwestern backgrounds.


The Age Question and Some Theoretical Assumptions


For our purposes here, we assume that the seven groups are reasonably representative of their average decadal ages.  Deviations from the line of regression for the seven groups on any age-humor correlation are likely to reflect the self-selecting humor biases of groups, especially for furthest outliers.  The oldest generation of Americans are disproportionately women.  At least five of our seven groups had strong female majorities, the Carleton and McCauley Groups having the greatest balance between men and women.





While ELBVHT creates sub scores for both Langerian and Bergsonian types, it is a long-standing assumption of ITCHS research efforts in vitalism that what we laugh with as extraordinarily alive is a better descriptor of our inner selves than what we laugh at as a limitation of life, the mechanical encrusted on the living, or death masquerading as life.  Bergsonian scores, conversely, are perhaps a better measure of our social, professional, and other-directed concerns.  Therefore, we concern ourselves here with the set of Langerian sub scores of the ELBVHT, that is, each group’s preference choices for Langerian Tenacity, Potential, Creativity, or Performance.


Empirical Results


A total of 223 respondent results comprise this study, each respondent result being composed of four sub scores which are necessarily somewhat negatively correlated with one another; that is, a higher Tenacity score must come at the expense of the total of the other three sub scores.  Eleven respondents did not provide a decadal age: 6 from Winona Health Auxiliary and 5 from Care Providers.  Thus, 212 respondents were useable in computing age/humor tendencies with an average overall decadal age of 5.3.


For the following graphs, we plott the total number of Langerian sub-form choices for each group against its average decadal age.


For Tenacity, there is a tendency toward higher sub scores with increasing average decadal age. This is the weakest correlation of the set.






For Potential, there is a more pronounced tendency toward high sub scores with increasing decadal age.  Indeed this is the strongest correlation of the set.




For Creativity, there is a marked tendency toward lower sub scores with increasing average decadal age.



For Performance, there is an even more marked tendency toward lower sub scores with increasing average decadal age.  This is the strongest negative correlation of the set.






These results are very much in line with ITCHS’ assumptions before beginning the testing program.  We posit that Langerian scores reflect the inner person’s drives and values.  As people age, performance of all sorts becomes increasingly problematic.  Laughing at limitations becomes a major coping mechanism.  Thus with aging, Performance vitalism should naturally lean away from Langerian and toward Bergsonian joke form.


Creativity too becomes increasingly problematic with advanced age, if only in the sense of the French thought, the more things change, the more they remain the same.  There is nothing like a lot of experience to make creativity more difficult and perhaps less enthralling.


Tenacity is one of the most objective realities of extreme age.  If one is still there, one by definition has achieved tenacious seniority.  Tenacity issues can be expected to increasingly occupy the aged.


Potential may seem something old age would not be concerned with; after all potential is also in objective decline.  But aging also allows the experience to build “second sight,” to see the potential which the young do not have the experiential knowledge to perceive.  And it is the old, not the young, who are noted for the ability to look beyond themselves and their own mortality to potentials as yet unrealized.




Secondary results: assigning Vitalist Humor personalities


As in all our mental humor and Vitalist humor testing, we assume that relative preference for two types of humor from a set of four generates a humor personality.  We have assigned single-word rubrics to characterize these hypothesized personalities.  For Langerian Vitalism, the six humor personalities generated from four Vitalist subtypes are:


Hero = Tenacity + Performance  

Nurturer = Tenacity + Potential  

Entrepreneur = Tenacity + Creativity

Inventor = Creativity + Potential  

Artisan = Creativity + Performance 

Visionary = Potential + Performance


In terms of humor personalities, the fact that Tenacity and Potential increase with age can be restated as Nurturer vitalist preference increases with age.


The fact that Creativity and Performance decrease with age can be restated as Artisan vitalist preference decreases with age.


In order to visualize these Vitalist humor shifts with age, it may be helpful to consider our impressions of a well-known American figure, Benjamin Franklin. We are all familiar with a young Ben Franklin as a printer and publisher, an enterprising businessman, exuding in his workmanship Artisan qualities of Creativity and Performance.  And we also remember the elder statesman Benjamin Franklin acting as midwife to the Declaration of Independence, keeping the American Revolution alive with his constant attention as Minister to France, and in the last years of his life, working for the abolition of slavery in the young republic he had helped to raise up, in other words, Tenaciously Nurturing a young nation whose Potential was to Franklin an ever-present reality.






This is a statistical report for seven groups of ITCHS associates.  It is not an attempted statistical proof that vitalist humor alters in predictable ways for individuals over their lifetimes.


R squares for age-humor correlations of the seven groups are much higher than the corresponding R squares for all individuals.  R squares in such cases are all less than .03.


At the individual level, we are talking about evidently subtle age tendencies.  This should not be surprising.  Vitalist humor is itself very subtle compared to humor of the mind, for example.  It was only in 1900 with Bergson’s Le rire that vitalism was recognized as a theoretical possibility for humor. The Langerian side of vitalism wasn’t explored for fifty years thereafter.  While Bergson is routinely saluted in humor discussion, vitalist discussion normally tapers off immediately after the quotation of Bergson’s “mechanical encrusted on the living,” and many humor experts seem to have no sense of the reality of Langerian humor as part of everyday life as well as part of commercial production.


by Robin Jaeckle Grawe






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