Getting Serious about Humor Research

By Amanda Houpt, Senior Trainer


Here at Alteristic, we have become low-key famous for something we call “the airplane story.” If you haven’t heard it, let me give you a run-down. A member of our staff boarded an airplane headed to a Green Dot training. Sitting just behind the curtain to first class, visions of free drinks, limitless snacks, pillows, blankets, and additional leg room danced like sugarplums before her. She watched as a first-class passenger ordered cocktail after cocktail after cocktail, halting boarding patrons in their procession onto the plane. As she watched, her reverie grew sour. She thought, “Oh, come on! Let the people board! This guy?! who does he think he is?!” To be honest friends, she thought some things that aren’t appropriate for a blog like this.

As the boarding process slowed down, a breathless passenger entered the plane and headed for the seat where the man was drinking with particular urgency. The flight attendant asked to see his boarding pass. He set his drink down, stood up, and walked to the last seat in coach where, enrobed in the sounds and smells of the airplane bathroom, he would fall into a tipsy sleep for the duration of the flight. Our esteemed colleague questioned all of her assumptions. Her harsh judgment softened into admiration of the sheer pluck of his sneakiness. Other members of our staff shared her sense of wonder and began telling the story as their own, to the delight of audiences around the world. Sometimes people who don’t even work for us tell the story. It has a life of its own, separate from its first telling.

In my last blog, I talked about the importance of using humor, like the airplane story, in classrooms and trainings. Specifically, I talked about how research has found that humor increases likeability, and that likeability persuades people to act. But the truth is that there is more to it than that. A cluster of Communication Studies researchers have devoted the past thirty years of their careers to studying the effects of using humor in the classroom. Specifically, they have studied how humor orientation affects student learning. Folks with high humor orientation use lots of humorous strategies in a variety of situations while folks with low humor orientation avoid using humor and do not try to get others to laugh (Wanzer et al. 1995). So the next time someone says you aren’t funny, just look them straight in the eye and say, “Actually I just have low humor orientation.” That’ll show them!

Anyhow, this group of collaborators studied humor orientation’s effect on student learning by surveying students about their perceptions of instructor attempts at humor and how these attempts affected their ability to learn. Take a look at the citations below for more details. From these studies, they learned that when instructors have high humor orientation, their students reported learning more in their classes, both because humor made the content more memorable and because it made them relate better to their teachers (Wanzer & Frymier, 1999). Beyond increasing likeability and relatability, humor increases the likelihood that students interact with their teachers outside of class in formal and informal ways, which college students find very satisfying (Aylor & Opplinger, 2003).

However, not all types of humor have such positive effects. Studies have shown that when instructors use disparaging humor targeted at a particular student, or offensive humor such as sexual jokes, it does not enhance student learning (Wanzer et al. 2006; Frymier et al. 2008). They recommend that humor related to the course content is the most effective type of humor because it enhances student motivation and reinforces concepts. Other researchers add that self-disparaging humor enhances student learning because it takes students by surprise and causes them to pay attention (Wanzer et al. 2010). It also reduces the psychological distance between teacher and student, which helps students to feel comfortable.

At Alteristic, we take humor research seriously. When we tell a funny anecdote such as the airplane story, our goal is always to build relationships with our audience, make them feel comfortable, and increase their ability to learn. For we’ve all been just behind the first-class curtain. We’ve all had to question our initial assumptions. Just as we all have a part to play in making our communities safer and better. It turns out that a small attempt at humor can go a long way in making us feel connected.



Wanzer, M. B., & Frymier, A. B. (1999). The relationship between student perceptions of instructor humor and students’ reports of learning.

Aylor, B., & Oppliger, P. (2003). Out-of-class communication and student perceptions of instructor humor orientation and socio-communicative style. Communication education52(2), 122-134.

Bekelja Wanzer, M., Bainbridge Frymier, A., Wojtaszczyk, A. M., & Smith, T. (2006). Appropriate and inappropriate uses of humor by teachers. Communication Education55(2), 178-196.

Frymier, A. B., Wanzer, M. B., & Wojtaszczyk, A. M. (2008). Assessing students’ perceptions of inappropriate and appropriate teacher humor. Communication Education57(2), 266-288.

Wanzer, M. B., Frymier, A. B., & Irwin, J. (2010). An explanation of the relationship between instructor humor and student learning: Instructional humor processing theory. Communication Education59(1), 1-18.

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