Hurricane Sandy: Study Conducted By McGraw, Williams and Warren (2014)

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Humor centered around loss and tragedy is often used as a coping method. McGraw, Williams and Warren (2014) conducted a correlational study on the mechanisms of humor in which researchers determined whether an increase in time and distance would result in either a decrease or increase in humorous responses to tragedy.

Independent variables are identified by observing which trait is being manipulated or changed. Dependent variables can be denoted by identifying which trait is being measured or tested, usually by the independent variable. In this experiment, the independent variable is distance and the dependent variable is humor. The article encompasses distance as being a temporal, spatial, social and hypothetical gap from an event, in this case the Hurricane Sandy disaster. Humor is described as a universal response “characterized by amusement and the tendency to laugh” (McGraw, Williams, & Warren, 2014, p.566).

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The researchers measured 1,064 participants’ reactions to jokes about Hurricane Sandy to determine if humorous responses to tragedy change over time. Random samples of 100 participants from the Amazon Mechanical Turk network were recruited at ten different time periods, beginning the day before landfall on October 29, and then in the ensuing days and weeks, so that the final sample was charted on February 6. Through an online survey, participants were asked to rate three tweets posted on Twitter about Hurricane Sandy’s destructive path. Participants recorded on a scale from 1 to 7, 1 being not at all and 7 being extremely, on how humorous, offensive, or irrelevant they found the tweets. The participants’ location and demographics were also collected.

Researchers found that over the course of 100 days humorous responses to Hurricane Sandy fluctuated from high to low and ultimately dwindling away. During the storm’s approach the participants’ ratings leaned more towards humorousness but as it made landfall, around 9 days in, people began to see the havoc caused by the storm and offensiveness ratings increased. As distance from the storm’s landfall increased, about 36 days after landfall, funniness ratings from people gradually increased. However, after 99 days humorousness ratings began to fall as predicted by the benign violation theory which notes that humor declines when there is too little threat. People felt humorous responses to be most safe when they felt a psychological distance indicated by physical, social and hypothetical distance and the passage of time which separated them from the threat. Therefore, time is not the only variable that affects how people determine humor. Threat reduction, indicated by the offensiveness ratings, enhances humor which explains why the jokes were funniest about a month after the hurricane’s destruction. Through these findings, researchers could explore how psychological distance affects perceived humor.


This study provides strong support for the idea that time creates a comedic sweet spot when people feel they are a safe distance from a threat, but the threat is not entirely benign. Researchers plotted the way people initially found the tweets funny, then offensive, then funny as psychological distance increased, then unfunny and finally irrelevant. The data collected can be implemented by psychologists to better understand the coping methods of patients. As the researchers stated, “The human capacity for taking a source of pain and transforming it into a source of pleasure is a critical feature of the psychological immune system” (McGraw, Williams, & Warren, 2014, p.566).

It is important that a study be both valid and reliable. In order to be valid, the study must measure what it claims to measure. To qualify as reliable, the results of this study must be consistent with replication. I found the study to be both solidly valid and reliable. The researchers sought to find out whether psychological distance changed humorous responses to tragedy. By having participants’ record their emotional reaction to jokes from beginning to end of a tragic event the researchers accomplished measuring their hypothesis. Additionally, a mixed model analysis of covariance was used to ensure the timing effect was consistent across the tweets.

The authors did not examine any ethical safeguards that were employed during or after the study, if there were any. I do not think there were many ethical concerns in this study, however all the participants should have been informed prior to the study especially since the jokes could cause unpleasant feelings due to their potentially offensive nature. Likewise, the participants should have been debriefed after the study, since Hurricane Sandy caused real physical damage and harm to people and property. Since the tweets could be seen as insensitive and cause distress, the researchers should ensure that the purpose of the study is clear and that the tweets were merely used to generate emotional responses in order to measure how distance affects humor.

A follow-up study that could be designed is one that focuses on the types of humor utilized and how different types of humor affect the participant’s response. For example, it would be interesting to see if, under a similar procedure to the initial study, jokes using sarcasm or irony, dry humor, dark humor, or wordplay would generate different responses. By implementing different humor techniques, it may affect the way participants perceive the jokes. Another intriguing aspect that could be explored is morality’s role in humor. There may be an individual who finds certain jokes unethical and does not ever find humor in tragedy-related jokes. These types of people would not follow the benign violation theory supported in this study because no form or length of distance would lead to them finding the jokes humorous.

Moreover, there are additional implications that can be found in the findings of this study. If distance is an important factor in regard to how humorous people perceive jokes to be then having the ability to appropriately time jokes would be indicative of social likeability. It could be said that those who lack knowledge of the comedic sweet spot would be socially unpopular.

Brief Summary

McGraw, Williams and Warren (2014) predicted that distance will increase humorous responses as long as there is still some threat perceived as benign situations can become too irrelevant over time. The researchers analyzed the emotional responses of 1,064 individuals to humorous tweets about Hurricane Sandy before, during and after the catastrophe. The participants rated the jokes as humorous, offensive, or irrelevant on a scale from 1-7. Through the rating system and Twitter, researchers found evidence that increased psychological distance increases humor to a certain extent, as too much distance or too little distance results in a lack of the joke being perceived as funny.


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