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The Humor Quotient Newsletter

Vol. 5, No. 3, July, 1999 Winona, MN


Vitalist Humor and the Corpus of Problem Solving


 [Previous issues of HQN have discussed results for the Langer-Bergson Vitalist Humor Test, a set of twelve joke preference pairs, each pair a choice between the Langerian, “laughing with extraordinary life” form and a Bergsonian “laughing at the mechanical encrusted on the living” form.  Four types of Langerian/Bergsonian jokes are differentiated by the test—Creativity, Potential, Tenacity, and Performance. Each joke pair asks for a preference for the Langerian and Bergsonian of the same subtype, for example, for Creativity.]


In May 1998, Elizabeth Grawe reported in CritThink on a study at St. Olaf College using the WSU Critical Thinking Inventory (CTI) and, as a side test, a prototype of what later became the Langer-Bergson Vitalist Humor Test (LBVHT).  The primitive prototype, which had only four questions, one testing Langerian/Bergsonian difference for each of the four subtypes—Creativity, Potential, Tenacity, and Performance—provided the skeletal framework for the LBVHT.   The test was primitive, but a strong conclusion seemed reachable from the critical thinking correlates.  With respect to seven Problem Solving dimensions of the Critical Thinking Inventory, it seemed that some of those dimensions were correlated to Langerian humor preferences while others seemed related to Bergsonian.






Elizabeth Grawe suggested that, if these results held up in a more developed form of LBVHT, such results would indicate a major stumbling block in problem solving: namely, one’s vitalist humor preference, which according to Bergson’s original theory is intensely related to our fundamental attitudes toward life and death themselves, might impede certain steps in a rational problem solving sequence even as it enhanced other steps.


The Northwood Test


In July, 1998, Paul and Robin Grawe addressed this concern at the Northwood College International Conference on Creativity in Higher Education.  Northwood is a unique institution, built in response to the automotive industry’s need for creativity in design and engineering.  The conference attracts members of the higher education community with particular interest and expertise in creativity issues and practice.  Participants include substantial numbers in theatre and the performing arts as well as in engineering and technical  writing.  Paul and Robin Grawe asked for the conference’s help in more fully investigating the problem solving issue and its implications for teaching creativity. By this time, the full LBVHT had been developed, and the conference agreed to have participants in a plenary session take the LBVHT, with some computer-assisted results made available to conferees before the end of the conference.


Before considering those results, it may be well to consider that Elizabeth Grawe’s hypothesis moves toward twentieth century practice and away from the Romantic ideal of the isolated artistic genius.  In the twentieth century, no motion picture studio has been so consistently successful at introducing creative and artistic material as Walt Disney.  As early as the 1930’s with the release of Fantasia, a standard of artistic imagination was set that has never been surpassed.  Nevertheless, it is clear that such Walt Disney successes are not matters of individual creativity but are in fact corporate in nature.  If Walt Disney himself had the vision of a final product, particular artists created the characters and settings, and technological geniuses brought the final product to fulfillment. 


While Walt Disney was perhaps the epitome of creativity in Hollywood, the general idea that theatre and film are not the work of individual genius is almost tautological.  Good work is the result of team effort, and quite typically, the team effort can be easily seen dividing problem solving into discrete elements accomplished by varying personnel.  So prototype results can be seen as raising the question, “Is group creativity limited to certain kinds of human activities—normally complex and expensive varieties like performing plays, creating movies, and perhaps building better automobiles—or is group creativity really a norm of problem solving based on the unlikelihood of a particular  human being in isolation  possessing the  full range  of skills to



HQN Editor: Paul Grawe, Department of English, Winona State University, Winona, MN 55987

Tel:  (507) 457-5443; Email:






press problems through to solution?”  The prototype LBVHT indicated the latter answer and suggested that fundamental differences in humor, reflecting fundamental differences in handling the human dilemma of mortality, might show where and why the problem solving process for individuals normally breaks down.


Northwood participants used the same Idea Development and Problem Solving list within CTI as had the St. Olaf student respondents.  The difference between typically sophomore undergraduates and sophisticated practitioners of creativity specialties suggested that the Northwood practitioners might easily not show the same dichotomies as dominated the undergraduate results, not because of the difference between primitive prototype and fully developed LBVHT, but because the professional practitioners had disciplined themselves to master the full range of problem solving skills.  And indeed, it was not possible to report to the Northwood Conference that their results had closely corresponded to those at St. Olaf.  It was still true that a general preference for Langerian responses was associated with some problem solving skills and Bergsonian with others, but the results were not so stark as to be statistically significant for the 35 Northwood participants as they had been for the 23 St. Olaf students.


However, the time since the Northwood Conference has allowed for deeper investigation of the dataset.  And while the St. Olaf results are not directly confirmed, strong evidence is available from Northwood in support of the hypothesis that different parts of Problem Solving are related to Langerian/Bergsonian dichotomies.  The CTI lists seven Problem Solving dimensions, more or less in a natural order from inception to completion of a creative process.  These seven are:


27 Brain stormed to generate alternatives

28 Limited a concern to a solvable problem

29 Distinguished a solvable problem from an unchangeable condition

30 Generated multiple possible solutions to a problem

31 Evaluated possible solutions to a problem

32 Executed a solution to a problem

33 Evaluated the effectiveness of a chosen solution.


Statistical Results from Northwood


One of these seven, participant use of #31, was found by better than 99% confidence to be related to Langerian preference among Creativity jokes (controlling for participant gender and national origin).  No other high confidence results to a single joke type were found. 


However, a series of statistical experiments was then run, controlling for gender and national origin, of relative Langerian preference  for one  of the  four types  compared to the other (for






example, Langerian Creativity preference compared to Langerian Potential).  This measure allows the researcher to see where Langerian preference is concentrated among the four tested subtypes.


In this series, two of the seven Problem Solving dimensions were high-confidence related to Langerian relative preference for Creativity: Preference for L. Creativity over L. Performance was better than 99% correlated to #31.  Preference for L. Creativity over L. Tenacity was better than 96% confidence related to #33.


Moreover, in 21 two-way competitions, L. Creativity prevailed as more highly correlated than the compared alternate subtype (Performance, Tenacity, Potential) a total of 15 times.  Moreover, it prevailed 10 times with a t-score greater than 1.0.  Interestingly, in contests of correlation to the first three CTI Problem Solving dimensions (#27-#29), L. Creativity prevailed only 3 times in 9 contests.  In the last four dimensions (#30-#33), it prevailed in all 12 contests.  Again, the Problem Solving dimensions were asked in roughly their necessary chronological sequence.  So L. Creativity was at a distinct disadvantage in the early stages of Problem Solving and entirely dominant in the later stages.  The difference in percent of victories between #27-#29 and #30-#33 has a p<.001.


A second fundamental result of this investigation showed that L. Tenacity is not particularly helpful to problem solving.  It prevailed in two-way  competitions  only 5 times in  21, was never high-confidence related to any of the seven Problem Solving dimensions, and was only once advantaged over a competing subtype at a t-score higher than 1.0 (cf. L. Creativity’s  10).


LBVHT, by combining the two highest Langerian preferences, yields six Vitalist Personality types: Artisan, Visionary, Hero, Nurturer, Entrepreneur, and Inventor.  Inventor (L. Creativity + L. Potential) was positively correlated to 6 of 7 Problem Solving Dimensions (all except #30) and Hero (L. Tenacity + L. Performance) was never positively correlated.  The 13 of 14 consistent results in this Axis far surpassed the 7-7 tie in the Artisan-Nurturer Axis and the 5-9 result in the Visionary-Entrepreneur Axis.





An Emerging Picture of Inventive Thinking’s Relation to Vitalist Humor


The Northwood Conference then suggests that even for highly trained professionals in creativity practice, some parts of problem solving will be more highly utilized than others and that such difference will be correlated to basic vitalist humor preferences.  In general, it seems most important for problem solving that a person have a Langerian attitude of laughing with extraordinary Creativity rather than a Bergsonian attitude of laughing at gaffs in Creativity (for example, a mind dominated by a fixed idea, as Beetle Bailey’s General Half-Track who refers every command decision to golf).  Much better to be a person who laughs with a wonderfully creative solution like Beetle tightly holding himself horizontally to a ladder carried past Sarge (who is searching for Beetle to put him on K.P.) by two of Beetle’s fellow privates.


To the extent that L. Creativity exceeds one’s normal Langerian/Bergsonian preference in other subtypes, the person is more likely to do Problem Solving activities, particularly those that occur later in the Problem Solving process like Evaluating possible solutions (#31) and Executing a solution (#32).   L. Creativity is particularly strongly correlated with Evaluating possible solutions to a problem.  Those involved in creativity issues will immediately notice how many times students who claim high creativity unfortunately never get to the point of evaluating alternatives before creating a final product.  Anyone should be able to imagine how poor an effort Fantasia would have been had there not been continual Evaluation of possible solutions throughout the production sequence.


These positive results should not obscure the importance of the negative results for L. Tenacity.  Appreciating extraordinary tenacity has its purposes—Heroes have to appreciate tenacity at all costs; Nurturers need to tenaciously cling to their vision of what can come out of properly nurtured material; Entrepreneurs need to stick to their goals tenaciously and to make every defeat a harbinger of victory.  But for Problem Solving, especially centered in the idea of the Inventor, tenacity is no particular virtue.  In Music Man, little Amaryllis seems perfectly willing to practice and re-practice her one-finger exercise always forgetting the B-flat at exactly the same point in the line.  She is a paragon of tenacity, but she will never be an inventive pianist.  Herman Mielke, the printer who invented the machine that puts the three holes in three-ring notebook paper,  did not invent the drill press by diligence—he was disgusted by the very thought of tenaciously hand-punching a large order, and his mind instinctively reached for the untenacious possibility of making a machine that would get the work done for him.


And most of all, these obstacles to an individual carrying through with all the seemingly logically necessary  steps for routine Problem Solving seem directly reflected in a person’s vitalist humor, a humor which Bergson argued originated in our fundamental attitudes toward a universe dichotomized between the living and the dead.






The results from Northwood, then, heavily argue in favor of group problem solving and creative achievement rather than individual-genius achievement and particularly argue that different personnel will lead in early and later stages of the problem solving  process.  For many years, English Departments throughout American higher education have experimented with group work in accomplishing creative intellectual assignments. One of the criticisms of small-group work, often voiced by more intelligent students, is that small groups typically result in the brightest member of the group carrying the load while other group members are bright enough to get out of the way and let the work get done. 


The Northwood results suggest that it is not enough if members of small groups all put in their fair share of the effort.  Good small groups evidently are those which allow some members with particular gifts to dominate in the early going and others with very different skills to dominate as the project moves toward sophistication and polishing. In many ways, the Northwood results suggest the need for a redefinition of editing as a creative activity and an integration of editing done by second persons as integral to the main writing process rather than a publishing afterthought. (Students, of course, still need to practice the full range of inventive skills for themselves.)

*     *     *     *     *

Differences in National Humor Preference


The Northwood Conference data for the Langer-Bergson Vitalist Humor Test (LBVHT) allows a first glimpse at the possibility of defining national differences in humor preference.


It should be stated at the outset that attempting to define the differences in national humor is fraught with statistical difficulty.  Several years ago, the early successes of the Humor Quotient Test (HQT) led to an attempt to compare humor preferences of the United States and Israel.  Prof. Ofra Nevo of Haifa University examined the HQT for translation and use in Israel.  The attempt was given up before any formal translation was made or any results were gathered because Nevo found that by far too many of the jokes of the HQT were dependent on American cultural features that would confuse Israelis or would be frankly unintelligible in an Israeli context.


It is, of course, possible to build an HQT or an LBVHT for some other culture than American, and HQN solicits volunteers from other cultures to gather and organize jokes into such tests with free consultation from HQN staff.  But clearly, entirely different joke sets for, say, a French LBVHT or an English HQT will pose numerous statistical challenges in comparison of results with the American version, and even the best statistics will leave room for substantial skepticism about the validity of such comparison.






In this context, the Northwood conference offered a unique opportunity.  Located in central Michigan, Northwood routinely draws Canadian scholars to its conferences and in fact draws some Eastern Hemisphere attendees as well.  Thus, in the dataset for Northwood, of a total of 36 respondents, 6 were Canadian, 1 was German, and 1 was Pakistani. The Canadians and Americans make an ideal test site for national humor distinction in that the Canadians share so much of the American cultural experience while still remaining a distinct culture (if you doubt that distinctness, I recommend John Candy’s Canadian Bacon as a light-hearted introduction to Canadian difference and, often, superiority).


Of course, the Northwood Conferees were a highly self-selected group of professionals in creative arts.  This self-selection was actually a theoretical advantage in that much of the noise of the general population’s breadth of humor responses was eliminated.  Was it possible that a group of Canadians who had much professionally in common with their American counterparts would nevertheless approach humor differently from the Americans?


Northwood National Difference Results


For the purposes of this comparison, Canada and the United States were given extremes of a Nationality variable, while German and Pakistani were placed in the middle, thus preserving the full dataset.  Multiple regressions were then run controlling for Gender.


A number of promising results were recorded for the 36-respondent dataset.  However, none of the six vitalist personality types and none of the four vitalist joke subtypes (Creativity, Tenacity, Performance, Potential) showed a result at 90% confidence or better—with only 6 Canadian subjects, high confidence is hard to come by.


Another six tests were then run pitting two of the joke subtypes at a time against each other in a subtraction (for example, Potential - Performance), again controlling for Gender.  A high confidence result (p<.04) was found for Creativity - Potential.  The same regression was then run giving Canadians and Other Nations the same arbitrary rank, thus contrasting Americans to all others.  The t-score for this revision was 2.34, up from 2.19.


Potential Meaning of the Result


Our one high-confidence result thus showed Americans as relatively more Langerian in Creativity jokes, Canadians in Potential jokes.  According to theory, Langerian score equates to individual personality type.  Americans in personality, then, are Creativity-oriented while Canadians are Potential-oriented.  While we made no specific hypothesis before running the full range of potential humor differences, the fact that Creativity - Potential difference was found erseems particularly apt.  United States citizens have always heavily emphasized Creativity—see our  attitude  toward  creativity  in war  as  displayed in Hogan’s Heroes and



Baa Baa Black Sheep as random but powerful examples.  Canadians, on the other hand, continually deal with a country of enormous potential—note for example their being, with the U.S., the only truly two-ocean State as a random but powerful example.


Langerian Potential and Creativity combine to form vitalist Inventor.  The respondents at Northwood all had special professional credentials in inventiveness.  The Creativity - Potential distinction between Canadians and Americans, however, suggests that the Canadians approach Inventor from a different direction, more related to Nurturer and Visionary qualities, than Americans, who tend toward Entrepreneur and Artisan.


Paul Grawe, Winona State University

Robin Grawe, ITCHS


Festschrift Proposals Sought


The 4th Annual Critical Thinking Conference at Winona State University featured a wide range of papers on the relationship between humor and critical thought. A new Critical Thinking Conference is in the planning. For that 5th conference, submissions are currently being sought for a Festschrift book of essays on the relationship between humor and critical thought to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the publication of Henri Bergson’s seminal essay, “Le rire.”


The expectation is for Festschrift essays to be approximately 15 pages (4500 words) in length and submitted in MLA style on diskette.  All submissions should clearly address some part of the relationship between humor and critical thinking, not merely discuss things that are funny and that one can also think about seriously.  HQN staff will be available to help proposals meet this criterion.  Submission deadline is March 15, 2000.


Preliminary proposals should be addressed via email to


It should be noted that the humor/critical thinking connection has been receiving rapidly increasing scholarly attention, including its own seminar at the Holy Names International Humor Conference in Oakland, California this July.  That seminar clearly showed the additional close connection of humor with pedagogy.  A second Festschrift on the relationship between  humor and pedagogy is being planned in honor of Prof. Suzanne Langer to follow the Bergson collection.




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