In 1974, Mel Brooks directed the blockbuster comedy, Young Frankenstein. In the movie, Dr. Frederick Frankenstein learns he has inherited his infamous grandfather’s estate in Transylvania, along with his manuals and lab notes. After initially resisting any connection to his grandfather, Frederick becomes fascinated by the idea of creating his own monster after he discovers his grandfather’s book, How I Did It. As Frederick discovered, understanding a researcher’s conclusions often starts by knowing how he or she did it. Here’s how I discovered the importance of humor in decision-making.
I first studied decision-making while working on my PhD in 1994. I conducted long-term original research on 138 American POWs (including John McCain) who had survived five or more years of brutal imprisonment. The study, under the direction of the U. S. Navy, uncovered the pivotal decisions the POWs made to stay resilient-decisions about their beliefs, identity, and life’s purpose. I didn’t expect to discover that humor had guided these decisions, but that’s what happened, and these research findings have influenced my work with executives ever since.
Before I began my work with the POWs, I had learned that most communication theorists and researchers consider the appropriate use of humor an aspect of communication competence. Nonetheless, most people most of the time cannot or will not produce humorous messages. Most people usually function as receivers rather than as sources of humor. We appreciate humor as a positive force in our lives, so why don’t more of us rely on it more consistently?
Since personality traits and behavioral repertoires differentiate high and low humor-oriented people, we know not everyone has the communication skills, personality traits, or cognitive abilities to create humor. Researchers have found links between a sense of humor and personality traits such as extroversion, lower anxiety levels, internal locus of control, and independence. They have also found a positive relationship between a person’s skill in creating humor and the ability to make a good first impression.
Therefore, we can infer the reason more people do not effectively produce humorous messages: Not everyone has the predisposition nor the communicative proficiency to generate funny thoughts-much less humorous messages. The VPOWs did have these traits, however. The personality traits of this group, coupled with their training and maturity, allowed these men to utilize humor as a coping behavior more than other groups in captivity had been able do.
I completed my work for the navy in 1998, but that didn’t end my fascination with humor. In the ensuing years, as I worked as a consultant, I have witnessed countless examples of humor diffusing conflict, building rapport, uniting people, and fostering creative decisions. That’s why I devoted a chapter in my newest book, Tough Calls, to a better understanding of how humor works. I called it “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Bottom Line.” You can read the first chapter of my newest book here…
The VPOW accounts indicate these men formed a system that defined and encouraged humor among the group’s members. These men relied on humor not in spite of the crisis but because of it. Control is central to individuals’ health, their personal benefits, and in the case of the Vietnam POWs, their actual survival. Even if they weren’t aware of how they were using humor to help them with their decision-making, that’s what they did. From them, I discovered what the rest of us should learn from their hard-earned lessons.
Today we observe National POW / MIA Recognition Day. We thank the 566 Vietnam POWs who came home in 1973 and remember the more than 80,000 who are still missing.