When we were in Dallas on a recruiting visit last week as word of the first Ebola patient in the United States hit the news, we reacted as many other people did we told jokes.
Every cough or sneeze was greeted with a comment about whether it was time to call an ambulance or head to the emergency room. We walked by that large statue of an eyeball in downtown and stood around it checking to make sure it was not bleeding.
Why is it so natural to greet serious news about a potential public health nightmare with humor? Because it lets us think about it.
A stream of research in social psychology says that our ability to think about death holds the key to understanding this reaction. Something called terror management theory starts with the assumption that humans are most likely the only species on Earth that can contemplate mortality. Because we can think about the fact that some day we will die, each of us needs to find strategies to deal with the fear that comes along with that knowledge.
So why does gallows humor work with so many people?
First, it creates a little bit of positive feeling. Lots of research demonstrates that your mood influences the memories you recall and the interpretation of events around you. If you are sad, you remember sad things, and you find the saddest way to understand events.
When you are anxious, you think about other times in your life when you were afraid, and you focus on the scary elements of the world. These negative moods will perpetuate themselves.
By joking about death, you lighten the mood. It allows you to remember positive times in your life and to experience hope. Humor breaks the potentially vicious cycle of fear that can ultimately be paralyzing.
Second, the fear of death is rooted in the knowledge that death is bad. After death, we will cease to exist. By joking about death, we minimize its importance. Death could not possibly be that important if we can ridicule it. By making death seem less important, at least in the moment, we lessen its impact as a source of anxiety.
There are many ways people react to thoughts about death. Some people cling more tightly to their culture or their religious beliefs, because of the knowledge that the culture will outlive them as individuals. Those people who react by focusing on culture and religion also increase their sense of moral outrage when people do things that violate their cultural or religious beliefs.
This also explains why some people get so offended by gallows humor. In the face of an event like the Ebola outbreak, everyone is forced to think about his or her own death. Some people react by telling jokes.
Those people whose reaction to threats is to take refuge in culture, however, can interpret jokes as a sign that people are not recognizing the seriousness of the situation. They react with outrage that someone would even contemplate joking at such an important time.
So is it “right” that we make jokes about situations like an Ebola outbreak? Maybe, maybe not. But we all must recognize that there are many ways that people deal with the knowledge that someday each of us will die. Laughing in the face of death is just one way that we feel alive even in the worst of circumstances.
Art Markman is the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of psychology and marketing at The University of Texas at Austin and founding director of the Human Dimensions of Organizations program. He is author of “Smart Thinking and Smart Change.”
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Dallas Morning News.
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— Texas Perspectives (@TexPerspectives) October 13, 2014