Do people who enjoy making puns derive a form of sadistic pleasure from the act? New research suggests that although people might use puns to elicit groans in their audiences, puns themselves are not indicative of everyday sadism. The findings, published in Personality and Individual Differences, shed light on the complexity of humor preferences and reactions in different contexts.
A pun is a form of wordplay that exploits the multiple meanings of a word or words that sound similar but have different meanings (e.g., you have to be sharp to work in a tack factory). They rely on the ambiguity of language and the double meanings of words to create a humorous or thought-provoking effect. But why research puns?
“The more refined response is, the research unites two of my research interests, humor and pain. The simpler — and perhaps more honest — response is, I find it to be such a fun idea, that something as lighthearted as puns could be told for nefarious, self-serving purposes,” explained study author Cody Gibson, a Ph.D. student at Northern Illinois University.
The researchers noted that a common reaction to puns is groaning, an expression of distaste. They wanted to understand if punsters derive enjoyment from causing a mild form of discomfort (groans) to others, and whether this enjoyment aligns with the concept of everyday sadism — a term used to describe a personality trait characterized by the enjoyment or satisfaction derived from causing discomfort, pain, or suffering to others in day-to-day, non-criminal situations. To investigate this hypothesis, they conducted two studies.
The researchers first conducted an online survey with 155 undergraduate students from a Midwestern university. The participants’ average age was 20.80 and they were from various racial and ethnic backgrounds.
Participants were asked to rate their enjoyment of different types of jokes, including puns, physical comedy, self-deprecating humor, topical humor, observational humor, toilet/scatological humor, dark/black comedy, and insult comedy. They were also asked about their tendency to make multiple jokes of the same type in succession for reactions.
The participants’ everyday sadism levels were measured using the Comprehensive Assessment of Sadistic Tendencies (CAST) questionnaire. Additionally, personality traits were assessed using the Ten-Item Personality Inventory (TIPI) and the Dirty Dozen Dark Triad Measure.
The results of Study 1 suggested that puns are not inherently sadistic in nature. Punning did not correlate with everyday sadism, and there were no strong links between punning and the Dark Triad traits (psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism). However, participants who enjoyed punning did express a desire for groans as reactions.
The study also found that puns were the most enjoyed type of joke, even though they often elicited groans. The researchers noted that punning seems to be associated with enjoyment regardless of the groan reactions it receives.
“Puns don’t appear to be sadistic; in fact, they seem beloved,” Gibson told PsyPost. “The groans might just be an act, a way to express approval through what is usually a sign of disgust. It’s somewhat funny that even our theatrical reactions to puns may be considered a play on words.”
The researchers conducted a second iteration of the survey with 122 undergraduate students to replicate their findings. The survey was similar to the first study, with some modifications. The Joke Reactions section was updated to include questions about desired reactions to physical comedy and insult jokes, and the Humor Styles Questionnaire (HSQ) was included to assess affiliative, self-enhancing, self-defeating, and aggressive humor styles.
The findings of Study 2 largely replicated those of Study 1. In addition, exploratory analyses showed that puns were associated with affiliative and self-defeating humor styles. Affiliative humor involves using humor to enhance social bonds, create positive relationships, and bring people closer together, while self-defeating humor involves making oneself the target of humor in order to gain approval or deflect criticism.
Contrary to expectations, puns were actually rated as more enjoyable compared to most other types of jokes. For instance, while over 40% of participants indicated that they did not make scatological jokes, the percentage was consistently under 10% for puns, suggesting that puns are more widely embraced. Moreover, puns were significantly more enjoyable to audiences compared to scatological jokes.
“I am not entirely surprised by the lack of link between everyday sadism and punning, but I certainly didn’t expect to find such a love for puns,” Gibson said. “A significant portion of the process was spent reading about how disliked puns are, how they are the bastards of language and derail conversations. Instead, puns were tied with observational humor for the most enjoyed type of joke.”
Interestingly, jokes categorized as negative humor, such as self-deprecating humor, insult comedy, dark comedy, and scatological jokes, were often associated with negative personality traits like everyday sadism, psychopathy, and disagreeableness. This finding, which is in line with previous research, indicates that humor preferences might serve as heuristic indicators of personality traits.
“Even though the research spotlights puns and everyday sadism, other personality traits and joke types were included in the study,” Gibson told PsyPost. “For example, we found people who enjoyed toilet humor tended to be more sadistic and less agreeable.”
But the study, like all research, includes some caveats.
“I think there are two things to keep in mind when reading the results,” Gibson said. “One, the participants were college students. It may be that some types of jokes are more appealing to them and some less appealing. Two, this research was correlational. We asked whether they enjoyed a particular type of joke instead of trying to create a representative example.”
The study, “Pun-intentionally sadistic: Is punning a manifestation of everyday sadism?“, was authored by Cody Gibson and Brad J. Sagarin.