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J Pers Soc Psychol. 2010 Oct;99(4):660-82. doi: 10.1037/a0019627.

A joke is just a joke (except when it isn't): cavalier humor beliefs facilitate the expression of group dominance motives.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, Brock University, St. Catherine, Ontario, Canada.

Erratum in

  • J Pers Soc Psychol. 2011 Feb;100(2):329.


Past research reveals preferences for disparaging humor directed toward disliked others. The group-dominance model of humor appreciation introduces the hypothesis that beyond initial outgroup attitudes, social dominance motives predict favorable reactions toward jokes targeting low-status outgroups through a subtle hierarchy-enhancing legitimizing myth: cavalier humor beliefs (CHB). CHB characterizes a lighthearted, less serious, uncritical, and nonchalant approach toward humor that dismisses potential harm to others. As expected, CHB incorporates both positive (affiliative) and negative (aggressive) humor functions that together mask biases, correlating positively with prejudices and prejudice-correlates (including social dominance orientation [SDO]; Study 1). Across 3 studies in Canada, SDO and CHB predicted favorable reactions toward jokes disparaging Mexicans (low-status outgroup). Neither individual difference predicted neutral (nonintergroup) joke reactions, despite the jokes being equally amusing and more inoffensive overall. In Study 2, joke content targeting Mexicans, Americans (high-status outgroup), and Canadians (high-status ingroup) was systematically controlled. Although Canadians preferred jokes labeled as anti-American overall, an underlying subtle pattern emerged at the individual-difference level: Only those higher in SDO appreciated those jokes labeled as anti-Mexican (reflecting social dominance motives). In all studies, SDO predicted favorable reactions toward low-status outgroup jokes almost entirely through heightened CHB, a subtle yet potent legitimatizing myth that "justifies" expressions of group dominance motives. In Study 3, a pretest-posttest design revealed the implications of this justification process: CHB contributes to trivializing outgroup jokes as inoffensive (harmless), subsequently contributing to postjoke prejudice. The implications for humor in intergroup contexts are considered.

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