Sure, telling a tasteless joke at work is an easy way to sink toward the bottom of the office totem pole. But for those among us who have been met with awkward stares and chilly silence after delivering a punch line, here’s a scrap of comfort: At least you can take solace in your own superiority. In a study in the journal Cognitive Processing, a team of psychologists found that dark humor — defined in the paper as “as a kind of humor that treats sinister subjects like death, disease, deformity, handicap or warfare with bitter amusement and presents such tragic, distressing or morbid topics in humorous terms” — is actually a mark of intelligence.
Fourteen researchers, led by Ulrike Willinger at the Medical University of Vienna, asked 156 participants, with an average age of 33 and including 76 women, to rate their comprehension and enjoyment of 12 black humor cartoons taken from The Black Book by Uli Stein … The participants also completed basic tests of their verbal and non-verbal IQ and answered questions about their mood, aggressive tendencies and educational background.
When Willinger and his colleagues crunched the numbers, they found that intelligence and understanding of the cartoons were tightly linked across the board. The subjects who scored highest on both verbal and nonverbal intelligence were also most likely to say that they got the joke, and, furthermore, that they actually found it funny. The same people were also toward the lower end of the spectrum on aggression and didn’t report especially negative moods — which, as Jarrett noted, “refutes the somewhat commonly held belief that people who like black humor tend to be grumpy and a little prone to sadism.”
The volunteers who scored toward the middle of the pack on IQ and understanding, on the other hand, fell into one of two categories: one, those who were moderate across the board, showing average levels of aggression and enjoyment of the jokes; and two, those who least liked the cartoons, showing both the worst mood and the highest levels of aggression (yet another strike against the stereotype of the angry creep with the twisted sense of humor, Jarrett pointed out).
The link between IQ and affinity for black humor, the researchers hypothesized, was likely do to with the fact that comprehending a dark joke is “a complex information-processing task.” As with understanding a pun, unraveling the layers of meaning requires a fair bit of mental exercise. As for the aggression and mood components, they wrote, “preference for sick humour is related to the ability to treat nasty contents as playful fiction.” To fully appreciate the joke, in other words, you need some distance from it. If ever you’re tempted to drop a questionable line at work, though, maybe take a deep breath, remember that you’re a cool, chill genius, and then say nothing.