The scientific reason you can't tell that joke

The Sydney Morning Herald 1 month ago

Jokes targeting a specific group of people are received better if the person telling the joke is a member of that group, research has found.

Researchers from the University of Queensland's School of Psychology conducted a series of experiments to test people’s reactions to disparaging jokes and whether their reactions changed depending on who was telling the joke.

Research shows you need to be a member of a group to make jokes about that group, or risk negative perception.

The study’s lead researcher, Michael Thai, said the clear finding was that people could joke about a group they were perceived as belonging to, but they were asking for trouble if they stepped outside that boundary.

"For something that seems almost a cultural norm, there didn’t seem to be any actual empirical evidence to back it up," Dr Thai said.

"So that inspired us to go and actually test to see whether you are more allowed to make jokes about your own group than you are about other groups, and that was our clear finding."

The researchers did three studies. In the first, people were shown a Facebook post of a gay joke, with the finding that people accepted the joke more if it came from someone who identified as gay.

Chris Rock was criticised for telling jokes about Asian people at the 2016 Oscars.

The second study used the same method to gauge responses to an Asian joke, with the finding that an Asian person was more likely to be accepted telling the joke than someone who was not.

Interestingly, the findings concluded that all non-Asian races were judged poorly for having made an Asian joke, not just those identified as European.

"We were able to show that it didn’t matter if you were black or white, if you’re making an Asian joke you’re perceived as being equally offensive," Dr Thai said.

The third study was an extensive questionnaire asking participants how acceptable it was for people of different backgrounds to make different types of jokes.

Dr Thai said the studies gave a clear picture that no matter whether people were talking about gender, race or sexual orientation, if you weren’t a member of the group being mocked, there were negative connotations.

He suggested this social phenomenon could explain why some comedians attracted criticism when they told jokes about people who belonged to different groups.

He said the blowback to jokes about Asian people told by African-American comedian Chris Rock at the Oscars in 2016 was an example of the mechanism in action.

"For someone who’s known for making jokes about his own racial group, when he tried to do it to another racial group it didn’t land quite so successfully," Dr Thai said.

The researchers hope to take their work further by investigating the underlying causes of the phenomenon.

"We want to look at whether the audience’s perception of the intent of the joke comes into play – if it is antisocial and seeks to denigrate or reinforce stereotypes, or if it is pro-social, and seeks to challenge or lampoon stereotypes," Dr Thai said.

"So a person within a group making jokes about that group could be seen by the audience as poking fun at the prejudice that group receives – lampooning stereotypes and satirising racism itself, rather than being a genuine expression of prejudice."

The research has been published in the .


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