How To Know If Your Sense Of Humor Is Hurtful

Studies show that what makes you laugh is sometimes no laughing matter.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | July 11, 2022

It goes without saying that having a good sense of humor is a desirable quality. It also can serve as a window into one's true identity, for better or worse.

According to psychologist Alberto Dionigi, a person's sense of humor is a multidimensional construct that combines several aspects of personality – such as behavioral habits, abilities and competencies, coping strategies, and character strengths. This includes darker forms of humor that can be used to manipulate, ridicule, or defend one's ego.

Several new studies give us a sneak peek into the dark underbelly of humor and how it can affect us and the ones we love. Have you wondered if you or someone around you might have a particularly unhealthy sense of humor? Here are three indicators suggested by recent studies that may help you figure it out.

#1. Low self-esteem as a result of self-deprecation

Nobody living in modern-day 'meme culture' is a stranger to how funny a well-timed self-deprecating joke can be. But a pattern of self-defeating jokes, self-ridicule, teasing one's own weaknesses, and making fun of oneself to gain social acceptance is indicative of far more than being just a 'good sport.'

Psychologist Chloe Lau of Western University Canada explains that an extremely self-defeating style of humor can be maladaptive.

"Maladaptive humor styles are positively associated with negative psychological outcomes, including spitefulness, loneliness, sub-clinical psychopathy and Machiavellianism, and parental rejection," she explains.

According to her, in the context of coping, self-defeating humor may provide denial and escape from underlying negative feelings. In the end, it will simply make you feel bad about yourself.

#2. Dark humor may point to a dark personality

A recent study examined the humor preferences of dark personalities. The research focused on eight types of humor, which can be broken into two categories:

  1. Lighter styles of humor, e.g., fun, humor, nonsense, and wit
  2. Darker styles of humor, e.g., irony, satire, sarcasm, and cynicism

The study found that people high on Machiavellianism and psychopathy gravitated toward the darker forms of humor like irony and mockery while people high on narcissism used lighter styles but in a self-serving manner (e.g., to inflate their own importance).

While the study is correlational, psychologist Alberto Dionigi speculates that people with dark personality traits may use their sense of humor in the following ways:

  1. Machiavellians, being unscrupulous and intimidating, may use humor as a means of manipulating others
  2. Psychopaths may use emotionally inconsiderate humor to lower others' statuses as they are characterized by deficits in emotional functioning and antisocial behavior
  3. Narcissists tend to use more positive humor as a way to improve their own reputations when interacting with others

#3. Finding violence funny shows moral disengagement

Violent shows and games are all over popular media and are enjoyed by many. But what if someone finds the use of gratuitous gore and bloodshed especially funny?

A recent study suggests that they may have a high level of moral disengagement and desensitization (as well as several other dark traits). This could mean that they can "turn off" their moral standards to avoid the consequences of their own immoral behavior, such as guilt or shame.

Interestingly, shifting from shows and games with extreme violence to superhero themes may not solve this issue. This is because these supposedly prosocial themes, in which the "hero" destroys the bad-person enemies, are actually harmful – at least to the extent that they teach that physical violence is good and not a last resort when faced with an interpersonal dispute.

To avoid developing such a desensitized approach to violence, psychologist Craig Anderson the University of Iowa gives the following suggestions:

  1. Parents of children from ages 5 to 21 should be concerned if their children find violence that they see in all types of media, including news reports of real-world violence, to be funny and not distressful
  2. If that is the case, then that is a good sign that the media habits of the family need to be altered and that the family needs to do a better job of teaching children prosocial family values rather than antisocial ones. Interestingly, superhero violence also is harmful to children's development of appropriate social values, behavior, and feelings of well-being.


Finding humor in difficult situations makes many conversations easier. However, problems arise when we stop introspecting and applaud people for self-defeating or interpersonally noxious humor patterns.