Dark humor, black comedy, morbid humor, whatever you prefer to call it, refers to making light of a serious or taboo subject (Wikipedia, 2017). Dark humor much like regular humor has a lot of positive effects, it can reduce stress, improve your mood, lower your blood pressure, and improve your oxygen consumption due to laughing. This is all because of its effect on the endocrine system as it reduces cortisol an epinephrine. All in all humor helps regulate stress hormones, this is why often times people laugh in high anxiety high stress situations, for example a funeral.

The only main difference between humor and dark humor is a matter of perception. Those who make or laugh at a dark joke are often subjected to harsh judgment for even thinking or finding humor in such a touchy subject. Dark humor has some unique aspects that differ from regular humor as it can be used as a coping mechanism and has psychological benefits as well as it an be a precursor for higher levels of intelligence.

Dark humor is actually very effective in long term stress reduction as it can be used as a cognitive behavioral strategy (FoxyWinePocket, 2017). This is often used by individuals who have gone through a traumatic experience, as it allows them to talk about a fearful topic in a playful, less intimidating way as well as providing the benefits humor offers.

Suggesting that those who understand and can appreciate dark humor is a pretty good indication of higher cognitive ability, according to Ulrike Willinger who created a study with 156 participants all ranging around the age of 33 an student at the University of Vienna (Jarret, 2017). Willinger had each participant take a verbal and non verbal IQ test, and then after ha shown the participants 12 dark jokes which they had to rate on levels of comprehension and enjoyment, basically whether or not they found the joke funny or not.

Willinger found that the participants with the highest scores on the verbal and non verbal IQ tests were able to understand all 12 jokes, and actually even found them funny. This is due to a higher level of intelligence needed to understand the joke in order to find it funny.

Willinger also found that these participants were less aggressive,  more calm, and generally more positive. This would be due to the psychological benefits an stress reducing capabilities of humor as well as the use of dark humor as a coping mechanism that allows such a positive outcome on individuals that can appreciate a dark joke.

~ What’s the best part of a dead baby joke?

They never get old… ~

So the next time you feel awful for laughing at a dead baby joke, take comfort in the fat that you can only laugh because you’re just so smart!


Adam Linehan (2017). Science: A Dark Sense of Humor is a Mark of Higher Intelligence. Retrieved form http://taskandpurpose.com/science-a-dark-sense-of-humor-is-a-mark-of-higher-intelligence/

Christian Jarret (2017). If You Like Sick Jokes, Maybe It’s Because You’re Just so Smart. Research Digest. Retrieved from https://digest.bps.org.uk/2017/01/18/if-you-like-sick-jokes-maybe-its-because-youre-just-so-smart/

FoxyWinePocket (2017). It’s Goo to be Bad: The Psychological Benefit of Dark Humor. Retrieved form http://www.foxywinepocket.com/2014/07/10/darkhumor/



13 thoughts on “Dark Humor: A Marker for Higher Cognitive Ability

  1. The jokes are funny but some people may not find themselves laughing if they also find the sorrow in that meaning, in usual life. However, in a special situation like a funeral, the depressed tension maybe reduced by the unusual humour that is made. Verbal interaction can be regarded as a kind of social cognition. We define language in different ways under various circumstances. And as we grow up more and learn more about culture and society, we become more intelligent, or in other words, more knowledgeable to understand the meanings of jokes which can also be related to the proposal of IQ. I am really interested in coping skills so this is exactly the field I want to look up into.
    Shune, S., & Duff, M. C. (2014). Verbal play as a discourse resource in the social interactions of older and younger communication pairs. Journal of Interactional Research in Communication Disorders, 5(2), 193.


    • Yeah on my references actually mentioned the fact that dark humour can be funny unless it hits close to home. People who are personally effected by the touchy subject more than likely will not find the joke funny! Thanks for your comment 🙂 I thought it was very interesting that it can be used a coping mechanism as well!


  2. I’ve always held close the humour is incredibly important across a multitude of fields, including dark humour. Humour allows us to process emotions, to gain experience in a specific social context, and to learn shared social reasoning strategies.

    I found an article that talks about how many cognitive functions are involved in humour, and how people perceive humour. It also alludes to the complexity in humour and how it requires many forms of knowledge, and communication skills to develop and interpret.

    I think this study could add an extra bit of information to your blog post. I had a great time reading it!

    Uekermann, J., Daum, I., & Channon, S. (2007). Toward a cognitive and social neuroscience of humor processing. Social Cognition, 25(4), 553-572. doi:10.1521/soco.2007.25.4.553


  3. I think this can be a tricky topic. While looking into it, I found most articles argue that the intelligence is shown from understanding the joke. Also, while visiting multiple sites, I discovered that every article used the exact same study as their example, the one lead by Ulrike Willinger at the Medical University of Vienna. One study examined multiple times isn’t always the best evidence for a difficult topic. So a person may not necessarily have to find pleasure in the jokes, but rather just have to comprehend them. Humour is all based on opinion of what one finds funny, and just because you understand it doesn’t mean you may enjoy it. “First were people who did not like black humour and did not understand the jokes very well.” (Chloe Farand 2017) This result is obvious, of course someone won’t enjoy a joke as much if they don’t understand it. Perhaps intelligence level and preference to certain jokes are being treated as a single variable, while they should be examined separately. To get a more concrete answer about whether enjoying dark humour is linked to intelligence there should be more studies done, rather then going off one studies results multiple times as proof.

    References (All the articles I visited that drew their conclusions from the same study)

    Chloe Farand, 2017 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/black-humour-jokes-sign-intelligence-aggression-a7551841.html








    • Yes I completely agree! There was a section in one of my reference articles discussing how if a particular dark joke is extremely personal or rubs someone the wrong way they more than likely wont find it funny, unless the joke is made by that particular individual, but then that ties into the coping element of dark humor. I would like to a study done on those that rated high on the understanding of the dark jokes but low on the enjoyment portion and see what’s up there!


  4. After hearing your talk this week, I became very interested in researching more about this topic. I decided to start by looking up the articles you have cited in you blog. I was particularly intrigued by the Research Digest article, and decided to find the article that it was discussing.

    In the article, by Willinger, Hergovich, Schmoeger, et al (2017), the researchers discussed the cognitive process of frame-shifting and how it relates to humour. Frame-shifting is the cognitive process, where new schemas are activated, and information that is stored in long term memory is recalled and applied to the current situation (Coulson & Kutas, 1998). This process is essential for understating humour, because without the appropriate schemas, an individual would not be able to understand the context of the joke. This is why people with higher intelligence are more likely to find dark humour amusing.

    Coulson, S., & Kutas, M. (1998). Frame-shifting: Event-related brain response to jokes. Paper submitted for publication.

    Willinger, U., Hergovich, A., Schmoeger, M. et al (2017). Cognitive Processing. doi:10.1007/s10339-016-0789-y


  5. This topic is super interesting! I recently did research about why we swear and found similar reasons (minus the ‘smarter’ part!) People swear to relieve themselves of emotions (mainly pain) or for humorous reason. But the humor comes from the listeners and the context of in which the swear was placed. For example, if you wanted to add humor to a situation in which you failed a test you could use sarcasm and say “I’m so dumb”, but if you said “I’m so fucking dumb” you may get a bigger reaction from fellow students but maybe not from people in a church. We develop speech habits and patterns from social interactions so we learn where and when it is acceptable to swear and with whom.



    • That is actually very cool! I seem to have a rather ‘colorful’ way of speaking, which my mother absolutely hates! And I often say I only cuss for comedic purposes so I find this journal article very enlightening and relatable to say the least. Thanks for bring it to my attention 🙂


  6. I found the part of your blog about using humour as a coping mechanism very interesting! I looked into the source you referenced (Foxywinepocket) and looked into the references she used in her article. One article entitled, “Coping with traumatic stress in journalism: A critical ethnographic study” talked about how journalists who witness and report on traumatic events use tactics such as avoidance strategies (avoiding future trauma assignments), physical exercise, distancing oneself from the emotional aspect of the assignment and of course, black humour like you mentioned (Buchanan & Keats, 2011). One journalist said, “It’s about laughing instead of crying. I will laugh at some of the horrible things that I really want to cry about … I have to”(Buchanan & Keats, 2011). Journalists explained that they use black humour to lighten the mood and detach from the “horror” of what is occurring in an effort to get the job done. Buchanan et al. (2015) suggest that individuals with post traumatic stress use black humour to displace the negative feelings they are experiencing or the realities they have or are witnessing.

    Buchanan, M., & Keats, P. (2011). Coping with traumatic stress in journalism: A critical ethnographic study. International Journal of Psychology, 46(2), 127-135. doi:10.1080/00207594.2010.532799


  7. Hey Brittni,

    Very interesting topic! While at your talk and reading your blog I wondered one thing, does it necessarily have to be dark humour that affects the cognition of people? What about more intricate “clean” jokes, or jokes that require a person to be paying more attention such as stand-up comedy?
    I managed to find an article by Franklin Jr & Adams Jr (2011) that did research on the effects of stand-up comedy in the regions of the brain. What was found was an increased activity in the nucleus accumbens, caudate, and putamen. All of these regions were related to reward responses within the brain. Therefore, it can be inferred that stand-up comedy gives people a sense of rewarding behaviour for paying attention and understanding the joke, similar to how dark humour requires people to cognitively understand why a joke a funny.
    I think the biggest difference between dark humour and stand-up comedy would be that the former is typically not socially desirable, while the latter is generally already situated in a social environment (e.g., theaters, stages, etc.). Therefore, reward responses are more observable in social humour such as stand-up comedy, rather than in risky humour such as dark humour.

    Franklin Jr, R. G., & Adams Jr, R. B. (2011). The reward of a good joke: neural correlates of viewing dynamic displays of stand-up comedy. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, 11(4), 508-515.


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