Sexist Jokes and Social Dominance

Jokes have been around for a long time. They are defined in dictionaries as little stories culminating in a punch line that makes people laugh. Psychologists have studied what it is about jokes that makes people laugh—in fact, even the physiological laughter response itself has been analyzed.

Why do we laugh at jokes?

The researchers have decided that what constitutes humor in a joke’s punch line is the perceived incongruity between what was expected and what is then stated, followed by a sudden jump in understanding (which I’ll call the “get-it” moment)—a paradox that provokes a mental somersault which re-sets understanding to a different, unexpected level. The physiological response is laughter.

Laughing at a joke implies acquiescence with the viewpoint behind it.

Why do we tell jokes?

Alright, we know what jokes are. We’ve all heard them, and we’ve all had a laugh. What I find interesting is the lingering meaning that suffuses a joke’s intent. Why do we like and repeat certain jokes, and what do they mean to us? Further, how do jokes function to define and reinforce our personal and group identity?

People use jokes as a way to state, through implication, their beliefs, group identity, and social standing or power. Through jokes, they can reach out and recognize others with similar sentiments.

Conversely, jokes are also a way to get a picture of someone else’s beliefs or viewpoint. Jokes are a short-cut to get at how people really think, feel, or identify themselves. Judging the response to a joke (the “get-it” moment), the teller can get a good idea of the beliefs and social standing of the listener.

Unfortunately, jokes can also be used to bully people: to belittle, demean, or ridicule the recipient (or a third party), in order to assert a dominant social standing. Nasty jokes, whether they are racist, sexist, or just insulting, really do leave a lasting impression of anger and frustration with the person or group that they target.

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