People who are anxious about their relationships and fear being rejected tend to use less wit and more irony, while people who are uncomfortable with closeness tend to employ more nonsense humor and sarcasm, according to new research published in the European Journal of Investigation in Health, Psychology and Education. The study indicates that the types of humor a person uses are related to the attachment style they developed during childhood.
Attachment represents an innate behavior consisting in an emotional bond with another person. According to this theory, humans are born with an innate need to form a close emotional bond with a caregiver that develops in the first period of life, approximately in the first 12 months of a child’s life.
The central theme of the attachment theory is that children may develop a sense of security, especially when they are separated from their primary caregivers, if the caregivers are available and responsive. This relationship will result in a mental representation of self, called the internal working model of attachment.
Separation led the child to experience anxiety and distress: responsive and warm caregivers help the infant to regulate his/her emotions, and ensure that the adult can be seen as a “secure base”, promoting the child to explore the world. Conversely, in case of damaging interactions with inconsistent, unresponsive, and/or unavailable caregivers, an insecure bond will develop, characterized by negative internal working models of the self and others.
Adult insecure attachment styles are clustered into two main dimensions: anxious and avoidant. The avoidance attachment dimension is characterized by a negative view of others, reflecting a negative expectation about the likelihood of receiving support and comfort from others, discomfort with closeness in relationships, and the suppression of attachment related needs.
The anxious attachment style is characterized by a negative view of the self, searching for closeness with others based on an evaluation of personal worth, and increased negative affect. Individuals with an anxious attachment style tend to fear rejection and abandonment.
Other than developing an internal working model of attachment, previous research showed how attachment is also related to the way humor is expressed and acted.
In clinical psychology, attachment theory represents a basilar aspect for understanding the behavior and the emotional responses of people. As a Cognitive Behavioral Psychotherapist and a humor researcher, who has been studying the role of humor in personality for more than 15 years, I was interested in better understanding the relationship between attachment and humor.
Working with a large number of patients, I can see how insecure attachment styles are related to emotional distress and mental disorders and I realized that certain patients used specific typologies of humor, while they were not prone to use others.
For this reason, I decided to scientifically investigate how the insecure attachment styles are related to specific types of humor. I planned this cross-sectional research along with my colleagues Mirko Duradoni and Laura Vagnoli.
We asked a large sample of people composed by 636 Italian participants (206 males, 428 females, 2 non-binary), aged 18 to 81 years (M = 41.44; DS = 13.44) to fill in a couple of questionnaires, one to assess insecure attachment and one to assess eight categories of humor, namely the Comic Style Markers (CSM). The eight comic styles can be differentiated as lighter or darker styles of humor and include fun, humor, nonsense, wit, irony, satire, sarcasm, and cynicism
- Light styles of humor, such as fun, humor, nonsense, and wit. These are positive styles of humor related to benign behaviors, cognitions, and goals.
- Dark styles of humor, such as irony, satire, sarcasm, and cynicism. These are generally negative styles of humor that are mostly based on mockery and ridicule and are correlated with poor mental well-being and tenuous relationships.
As we have seen, humor is not a unitary concept: it may have both positive and negative facets. It’s very intriguing to consider that people with different attachment styles might use certain styles of humor for several purposes. The study found that the light and dark styles were differently related to the anxious and avoidant styles.
Anxious attachment was negatively associated with both benevolent humor and wit, while irony was positively related to this style. The avoidant style emerged to be positively associated with both nonsense and sarcasm, while no other relationship emerged.
That means that the humor of a person is related to the attachment style developed during childhood and represents a way to interact with others. Individuals with an anxious attachment style fear rejection and abandonment, and they may inhibit their use of more benevolent forms of humor that is strictly related to having a cheerful outlook on life.
Moreover, wit represents a form of humor that reflects an ability used to impress and be admired by others; therefore, people with anxious attachment styles may be less prone to utilize it. Conversely, these individuals may use irony to create a self-bond with people who value them and to distance others, thus maintaining their safety.
When considering the avoidant style, these individuals tend to be independent, and they do not rely on others for reassurance or emotional support. Therefore they can use sarcasm to implement psychological and emotional distance from others as this form of humor is based on being critical of others, conveying contempt. Moreover, Nonsense is based on playing with incongruities and ridiculousness without any purpose and avoidance individuals may prefer nonsense as they would probably like to play with their own ideas rather than interact with people.
It’s worth pointing out that the sample of this study was subclinical. Moreover, we have decided to focus on the insecure attachment styles, but we have not considered the secure attachment style that could have provided further useful findings. Further, we used entirely cross-sectional self-report data, so future studies should be aimed at exploring the causality underlying these relationships
As we have not investigated the practical implications of these findings, it would also be interesting to empirical study what happens in the clinical settings.
Moreover, there are different approaches in evaluating the attachment styles and would be useful to evaluate any potential differences in those models. This is the first study to focus on the relationships between the two insecure attachment styles and the eight comic styles, considering both lighter and darker forms of humor.
The findings of the current study support the notion that individual differences in humor sense are related to the various attachment orientations. I do hope that this work may be of help both for laypeople and my colleagues for a better understanding of the potential (both positive and negative) of humor.
From the point of view of how this may be applied in a therapeutic context, being aware of the patient’s humor may guide the focus of the interview, helping the therapist in the assessment of a patient.
Dr. Alberto Dionigi is a cognitive behavioral psychotherapist who received his PhD in Psychology of Communication and Cognitive Processes at the University of Macerata (Italy). He is a member of the ISHS (International Society of Humor Studies), co-Editor-in-Chief of the Rivista Italiana di Studi sull’Umorismo (risu.biz) and his main interest concerns the psychology of humor. He has delivered talks internationally at academic conferences and published more than 40 scientific articles on the subject.