Humour in the Presentation of Self

Why do we laugh? Why do we make people laugh? In the organization context, do we laugh because everyone is laughing or do we laugh just to please our superiors? This post would like to answer these questions by looking at how humour is related to impression management. We shall see how the simple and natural act of laughing and making people laugh is sometimes the result of social influences to present a desired image of one self.

Humour Production – Why we make people laugh

The specific form of impression management in this context is self presentation. While impression management can be applied to individuals, groups and organizations as a whole; self presentation is about the individual. It is the ‘attempt to communicate self-images to interaction partners’ (Laux & Renner, 2005; Leary, 1996, Leary & Kowalski, 1990; Renner, Laux, Shutz& Tedeschi, 2004; Schlenker, 2003, Tedeschi, 1981).

One of the many forms of self presentation is ingratiation, the attempt to establish oneself in the good graces of others. Writers have proposed humour expression as a tool of ingratiation (Cooper, 2005; Jones, 1964). Cooper, for example, argues that an employee may amuse his or her boss by making a joke to enhance his attractiveness. Thus we see humour as a tool to present a good side of ourselves.

Cooper also suggests another reason to the use of humour- to indicate status differences. If a boss is to make poor jokes, their subordinates are expected to laugh even if they do not find the joke funny. A boss may make use of this right and social norm to showcase his power over his subordinates.

Humour Appreciation – Why we laugh at other people’s jokes

Work by Rosenfeld, Giacalone and Tedeschi (1983) suggests that facilitation of humor responses in the presence of others is due to concerns for impression management. The study conducted demonstrated that the presence of another person affects how “funniness” is perceived. A person finds something funnier if the other person is laughing than when the other person is silent. An early experimental study (Davis & Farina, 1970) offers an explanation to this. They argue that people laugh in order to be perceived by others as friendly and agreeable.

Gelotophobia, Gelotophilia and Katagelasticism

Researchers Renner and Heydasch actually went deeper into the discussion by looking at gelotophobia (fear of being laughed at), gelotophilia (joy of being laughed at) and katagelasticism (joy of laughing at others).
The results of their study suggest that, gelotophiles (those who enjoy being laughed at) may attempt to convey an image of competence and power. They are capable and powerful enough to be able to afford being laughed at. This means that people sometimes make fun of themselves or laugh at the jokes that others make of them to portray an image of power and competence (Renner & Heydasch, 2010).

They also further differentiated katagelasticists into passive and active. They suggested that passive katagelasticists practice protective self-presentation by only joining in and laughing at others when everybody else is doing so (Renner & Heydasch, 2010). They do so to show themselves as sociable and friendly (Leary & Kowalski, 1995). This also seems to sit in well with conformity in groups. We laugh at jokes about others when the rest of the group is doing so just to fit in well the group.

All in all, humour may be seen as something innocent and light hearted on the surface but it could be used with hidden intentions.

I must, however, say that not all jokes are made with the intent of manipulating perceptions. Sometimes they are used to cheer people up or simply to make life seem more interesting. One may also laugh at jokes simply because we find them amusing and not because we are pressured by social norms. However, we should still be aware of the influence that humour has in shaping the image of a person to prevent us from making ill-informed judgments of people and to enable us to leave a good image.


Cooper, C. D. (2005) Just joking around? Employee humor expression as an ingratiatory
behaviour. Academy of Management Review, 30, 765-776.

Davis, J. M., & Farina, A. (1970). Humor appreciation as social communication. Journal of
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Jones, E. E. (1964). Ingratiation. New York: Appleton-Century.

Laux, L., & Renner, K.-H. (2005). Selbstdarstellung. In H. Weber & T. Rammsayer (Hrsg.),
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Leary, M. R., & Kowalski, R. M. (1995). Social anxiety. New York: Guilford

Paul Rosenfeld , Robert A. Giacalone & James T. Tedeschi (1983)
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Renner R. H. & Heydasch T.,( 2010). Performing humor: On the relations between self-presentation styles, gelotophobia, gelotophilia, and katagelasticism. Psychological Test and Assessment Modeling, 52(2), 171-190. Retrieved on 21 April 2014 from

Renner, K.-H., Laux, L., Schütz, A., & Tedeschi, J. T. (2004). The relationship between self-presentation styles and coping with social stress. Anxiety, Stress, and Coping: An International Journal of Social Psychology, 121, 59-63

Schlenker, B. R. (2003). Self-presentation. In M. R. Leary & J. P. Tangney (Eds.), Handbook
of self and identity (pp. 492-518). New York: Guilford.
Tedeschi, J. T. (Ed.). (1981). Impression management theory and social psychological Research. New York: Academic Press.

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