Humor as a Producer of Creativity

Theoretically, humor should have two related effects on thinking that would facilitate creativity. First, the cheerful mood associated with humor should reduce tension and anxiety. In a state of relaxation, individuals would show less fixation and rigidity in their responses to problem solving situations. Second, beyond the reduced rigidity, there might also be a wider range of options that could be considered. The cognitive network could be expanded due to priming by the incongruous.

There is research evidence that both these factors can contribute to a relationship between humor and creativity. Many research reports in the humor-creativity literature have actually manipulated humor as an independent variable. In these studies, exposure to humor (typically in the form of cartoons, comedy films, or records) facilitated creativity or problemsolving in one or more forms (e.g., RAT score, unusual word associations, unusual uses, word atypicality).

Ziv has carried out several studies with humor as an independent variable. In one of his classic studies, some classrooms of Israeli adolescents listened to a comedy record; others did not. After the humor experience, there was an increase in creative performance on the Torrance tests of unusual uses and just suppose. The increase in divergent thinking was most marked for originality.

Psychologist Alice Isen and her colleagues have conducted numerous experiments demonstrating that positive emotion facilitates creativity. Although humor was not usually the focus of this research, in many of Isen's studies, positive emotion was manipulated by exposing participants to a comedy film. More generally, the effects of positive emotion have been widely studied; for example, Barbara Frederickson established the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab, whose web site summarizes a great deal of this research.

In the same vein, positive mood has been found to enhance flexibility and original thinking. Instructions, however, have been found to over ride the effect. In 1968, Liam Hudson told students to pretend to be a wild, free-wheeling artist and found the instructions increased unusual uses. Karen Gasper instructed participants to 'seek freely' and that all responses were acceptable in generating problem solutions. What had been a significant effect of mood was eliminated. Thus, it is possible that much of the effect of mood on creativity may be a result of self instruction.

A question left unanswered by these studies on humor as a producer of creativity is the duration of the effect. All the tests reported above were immediate; a humor experience was followed right away by creative tasks or problems to be solved. A fruitful testing ground for further research on this topic might be workshops or conferences that evoke humor to enhance creativity.

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