How A Dark Personality Uses Humor

How someone chooses to be funny can reveal important aspects of their personality.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | June 23, 2022

A new study published in Personality and Individual Differences identifies which styles of humor can be indicative of a dark personality.

I recently spoke to psychologist Alberto Dionigi to understand the 'double-edged' nature of a dark sense of humor. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to study humor within the context of dark personality traits? According to you, how much does an individual's sense of humor reveal about their personality?

I am a cognitive behavioral therapist, a clown doctor, and I have been doing research on how people differ in their sense of humor for 15 years. Moreover, I am the co-Editor-in-Chief of a scientific journal that is specifically focused on humor research.

I am interested in understanding how people differ in using humor and what are the connections with their psychological traits, as well as how humor may be used to promote or inhibit well-being (e.g. humor in psychotherapy and healthcare clowning).

I often work with patients who suffer from personality disorders and I realized that there are some peculiarities (e.g. narcissists tend to mainly use certain types of humor, psychopaths others, and so on).

For this reason, I decided to investigate how the dark triad of personality is related to specific

types of humor.

Humor and personality are strictly interrelated: Fyodor Dostoevsky used to say that "One can know a man from his laugh."

This aphorism points out how humor may help understand how the way in which humor is expressed and perceived can be an element fundamental to understanding the psychic structure of an individual.

What was the methodology of your study? What would you say was your most important finding?

I planned this research along with my colleagues Mirko Duradoni and Laura Vagnoli. We conducted a cross-sectional study and the data collection was done online.

Emails containing a link to the survey created on Google were randomly sent through social media and mailing lists.

The survey was composed of some demographics questions and two questionnaires. One investigated the three facets of the dark triad (i.e. narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy) and the other investigated eight categories of humor, namely the Comic Styles.

The eight comic styles can be differentiated as:

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

We found that machiavellianism was the best predictor of irony and was not related to the other comic styles.

Furthermore, narcissism mainly correlated significantly with the lighter styles, being the best predictor of wit and humor, while it was not related to nonsense.

Psychopathy showed the strongest positive correlations with the mockery styles (satire, sarcasm, and cynicism), although small positive correlations also emerged with the other comic styles (except for humor).

Humor is usually looked at as an overall desirable personality trait. But within the context of your study, what makes a comic style 'negative' or 'positive'?

Humor is a complex phenomenon. The sense of humor of a person is a multidimensional construct that combines several aspects, such as behavioral habits, abilities and competencies, personality traits, coping strategies, and character strengths.

The media is generally interested in the beneficial aspects of humor on psychological and physical well-being. However, research in this field has increased in the last 40 years and many studies have been conducted evaluating how different types of humor may influence peoples' lives and well-being.

Nowadays, researchers agree that humor can be differentiated as both positive and negative styles, and that they are specifically related to adaptive or maladaptive functioning.

The instrument we used (the Comic Styles Markers) was developed few years ago by Professor Willibald Ruch and his colleagues at University of Zurich, and was soon translated and validated in several countries.

The four lighter styles relate to benign and social affect, behaviors, cognitions, and goals while the darker styles that lack this benevolent affect and are mostly based on mockery and ridicule.

Previous studies have shown that these comic styles relate differently to personality traits. The lighter styles are generally positively related to extraversion, while the four darker styles are negatively associated with agreeableness.

Notably, neuroticism was found to relate negatively to humor, nonsense, and wit, and positively to sarcasm and cynicism. While many comic styles indicate openness to experience (i.e., fun, humor, nonsense, wit, irony, and satire), conscientiousness is only marginally associated with the comic styles.

Would you say that these comic styles could be weaponized by an individual with a dark personality?

I would say that these differences already belong to people with a dark personality and this study may provide scientific proof of these connections.

For example, Machiavellians are unscrupulous and intimidating and they may use humor as a means of manipulating others.

Psychopaths may use malicious humor to lower others' statuses, not considering others' feelings, as they are characterized by deficits in emotional function and antisocial behavior.

Finally, narcissistic people tend to use more positive humor probably as a way to positively improve their own reputations when interacting with others.

Someone with a sharp sense of humor is usually looked up to in most cultures. What influence do you hope your research has on such an idealization of the quick-witted personality?

As mentioned earlier, humor is generally seen as a positive construct that leads to well-being, better relationships, less conflicts, and so on.

But we must keep in mind that not all humor is positive: dark styles, for example, are positively correlated with poor well-being and worse relationships.

I hope that this research may help to better understand how humor is a very complex phenomenon, and distinct components of humor may exhibit quite different relationships with psychological well-being and satisfaction with life: some are facilitative while others are detrimental.

This study is correlational, so we cannot predict any causality, but we can suggest ways to improve certain types of humor (e.g., benevolent humor and fun) in order to improve one's life.

How do you suggest your research be integrated into intervention efforts?

In my opinion, this work may be of great interest to my psychotherapist colleagues.

During therapy, the therapist and patient often laugh and being able to identify the type of humor used can be useful for a better understanding of the psychological functioning of the patient.

Can a negative comic style have negative repercussions for the one cracking the jokes?

Humor is a double edge sword. If a person tells a joke and it is not understood by the recipient, the humor does not exist.

Moreover, certain people, with a specific diagnosis, may not be aware of how their humor influences (negatively) their relationships. They can be sarcastic and cynic, without

understanding that this humor is not beneficial but detrimental to their relationships.

For this reason, shedding light on the different ways people express humor may be beneficial to better recognize what is positive or not for one's purposes.