Do you have the “right” sense of humor? Exploring the humor styles of Taiwanese from neurocognitive to socio-cultural perspectives

How humorous are the people of Taiwan compared to those in other countries? What are the gender and cultural differences in the use of different humor styles? Is it possible to help students with Asperger syndrome to develop their positive humor styles?

Humor, which is believed to represent complex high-order cognitive and affective processes, has been a major driving force in the evolution of humankind's unique perceptual and intellectual abilities. Given that its social functions include helping people to adapt to their social contexts and maintaining social harmony, it is important to understand the differences between adaptive and maladaptive humor, as well as how they are used in daily life. With the assistance of MOST, and informed by an integrated cognitive-cultural perspective, Professor Hsueh-Chih Chen of National Taiwan Normal University and his research team (Drs. C.-L. Wu, Y.-L. Chang from NTNU, F.-C. Chiu from Chinese Culture University, Y.-C. Chan from National Tsing Hua University, and Y.-N. Lin from Fu Jen Catholic University) have applied an array of methods including questionnaires, psychological scales, and fMRI to collect data on humor, and arrived at the most complete theory of humor styles to date, which explored the neural basis and cultural differences. Some of the research results are now being applied to assist children with Asperger syndrome to develop their positive humor styles.

Building Taiwanese people’s sense of humor

Professor Chen’s research team, along with 22 others, was part of an unprecedented study of senses of humor in 23 countries, which found that Italians use humor the most frequently, while Taiwanese – at 15th in the ranking – were below average in this respect. People in Spain and New Zealand used adaptive humor more than those in other countries did, while those in India and Chile were the most likely to use maladaptive humor (as defined in the next section). The study also found that, of all the countries surveyed, Taiwan had the greatest gender differences in how humor was used: with males utilizing larger amounts of humor, and more maladaptive humor, than females did. This could mean that there is room for Taiwanese people to build sense of humor, and male may need to use more adaptive humor styles.

Gender differences in humor styles

Professor Chen’s research team also created a Chinese version of Martin, Puhlik-Doris, Larsen, Gray, and Weir’s (2003) Humor Style Scale, which divides the uses of humor into four styles: affiliative (roughly describable as good to others); self-enhancing (good to oneself); aggressive (harmful to others); and self-defeating (harmful to oneself), with the former two being classed as adaptive, and the latter two as maladaptive. A series of prior findings that men prefer to use aggressive and self-enhancing humor were clarified by the research team, as relating to gender differences in empathy levels.

Humor styles between couples

Based on a study of 239 Taiwanese married couples, the research team found that husbands and wives tended to use maladaptive humor styles when interacting: with, for example, aggressive or self-defeating humor most often being replied to via aggressive humor, seeming to support the old adage of “an eye for an eye”. Clearly, couples need to use humor more wisely and carefully.

Cross-Cultural differences in humor styles

The research team also found, in an echo of Western studies, that Taiwanese individuals’ physical and mental health and interpersonal relationships were positively correlated to their use of the two adaptive humor styles, and negatively correlated with aggressive humor. These results were similar with those of the studies conducted in the Western cultures. However, differences between Eastern and Western cultures were also identified: with self-defeating humor, for example, being seen as less detrimental in Taiwan than in the West. This could be because, while self-defeating humor is negatively correlated with self-esteem, it is positively linked to empathy, emotional reflection, and emotional regulation, and therefore compatible with Chinese culture’s privileging of humility and interpersonal harmony. To test this assumption, the research team used fMRI to analyze participants’ brain activity while watching stimuli of the four humor styles. When these stimuli promoted strong interpersonal relationships, greater cerebral cortical activities were observed. The study provided empirical evidence for cultural differences of the basic cranial nerves activities of humor, which was highly valued by the international journals.

Students with Asperger syndrome can learn to use affiliative humor

When the research team compared the differences in humor-style use by students with Asperger syndrome and normal students, no differences in the use of maladaptive humor were found: a result out of keeping with the received wisdom that students with Asperger syndrome lack a sense of humor. However, the use of adaptive humor styles of the students with Asperger syndrome was much less frequent than that of their counterparts. Based in part on these findings, Professor Chen and his colleagues designed a humor-teaching program for students with Asperger syndrome, comprising lectures, observations, experience, and role-playing. This was found to significantly increase the participants’ preference for affiliative humor.

Humor styles and brain circuits

Professor Chen’s research team used diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) with a nuclear magnetic resonance imaging scanner to observe variation in the connections in the white matter of the brains of people who used different humor styles. After controlling for age, gender, intelligence, and personality, those who used self-enhancing humor more often had the most efficient connections in their brains, and those who tended to use more aggressive humor, the least efficient. The same experiment also established that the node-linking efficiency of the left superior temporal gyrus (divergent-thinking regions) could be used to distinguish between participants who used adaptive and maladaptive humor. This neurophysiological evidence regarding humor styles has proved to be of considerable value in the field of psychology worldwide and inspired the teaching decreasing students using aggressive humor, which also was taken seriously by international psychologists.

Future prospects

In the future, in pursuit of a more comprehensive picture of humor in Taiwan, the research team’s explorations will focus more on indigenous people, who were found to use more humor than other ethnic groups there. It will also integrate the wider research initiative’s findings on humor from all over the world into teaching materials, and implement a “strength-based intervention,” which infused with creative humor teaching strategies, through which Taiwanese indigenous children’s sense of humor will be leveraged to support their development in other areas. Finally, the research team plans to use artificial intelligence to build a humor chatbot, aimed at reducing its users’ stress and improving their mental health.