Psychologists examine what children’s style of humor reveals about their mental health

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The style of humor children use is closely related to their psychosocial adjustment, according to a study published in Personality and Individual Differences.

The study, which included 1,234 adolescents in England aged 11-13, used various self-report measures to gauge children’s style of humor and levels of self-esteem, depression and loneliness over a six-month period. Though there is an abundance of research on the psychology of humor in adults, researchers were interested in determining if the same rules apply to young people.

“Whether such associations can be generalised to adolescent populations is not yet clear, and data relating to this would clarify the ways in which humor as a coping strategy develops across the lifespan,” reported Claire L. Fox, corresponding author for the study.

There are currently four well-established types of humor that psychologists agree on: self-enhancing humor, or using humor to cope with stressful situations; aggressive humor, which improves feelings about the self at the expense of others; affiliative humor, which reduces tension between people and improves relationships; and self-defeating humor, which enhances relationships, but at the expense of oneself.

There has been much debate in the psychological community concerning how to sort out the various combinations of humor styles people use. Researchers believe some people tend to use only one style, while others use several.

“The main aim of the current study was to identify humor types in children and improve on some of the limitations identified in previous studies,” Fox said.

Researchers used the Child Humor Styles Questionnaire, the Children’s Depression Inventory, Loneliness and Social Satisfaction Survey, and a self-esteem survey to gather data and create four new clusters based on the results.

Fox et al.’s Four Clusters

Interpersonal Humorists

Interpersonal humorists scored high on aggressive and affiliative humor, but low on self-defeating and self-enhancing humor. Fox’s team found that these humorists showed low levels of depression and loneliness, and those levels got even lower over time.  However, the team found the data on interpersonal humorists to be the most inconsistent, calling for more long-term research in the future to determine its actual effect on adjustment.

“Over the long-term, aggressive humor may be detrimental to the self because it tends to alienate others,” according to Fox.


Self-defeaters scored high on self-defeating humor and low on the other three humor types.  These humorists were most highly correlated with poor psychosocial adjustment.

“They scored highest for depressive symptoms, loneliness, self-esteem and change in loneliness, compared to the other three clusters,” said Fox.

Humor Endorsers

Humor endorsers scored high on all four types of humor.  These people reported less loneliness than the self-defeaters, but more than the other two clusters. They also reported lower levels of depression than the self-defeaters, suggesting an important point.

“The negative effects of using self-defeating humor can be offset to some extent when it is used in combination with other humor styles, but not always,” added Fox.

Adaptive Humorists

Adaptive humorists scored high on self-enhancing and affiliative humor, and low on aggressive and self-defeating humor. In other words, their humor is mainly used to cope with stress or to enhance relationships. Participants categorized as adaptive humorists reported the lowest levels of depression and the highest levels of self-esteem out of all groups.

Previous long-term studies have suggested a bi-directional relationship between style of humor and psychosocial adjustment. In other words, a person’s sense of humor may have an impact on his or her psychological well-being, and vice versa.

According to the team, there is still much work to be done before this connection is understood. More long-term studies must be done, and researchers may consider gathering data from measures other than self-reporting in order to ensure reliability and accuracy.

“Further research should consider gathering data on children’s adjustment from different sources, such as teachers and parents,” said Fox.