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The Usefulness of “Dark Humor”

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1 The Usefulness of “Dark Humor”
Examples Emphasizing Law Enforcement

2 Contributors In the order of contribution amount
Erika L. Liljedahl, Psy.D. Erin Conway, BA Jessica Scharf, BA Leroy Burgess, BA and Personal communications with police officers

3 Learning Objectives Consumers will
Learn about the use of humor police culture Learn about how humor affects the body Apply this learned knowledge to developing appropriate and creative therapeutic interventions to assist with decreasing mood symptoms such as depression, anxiety and fear

4 Program Police Culture Dark Humor in the Police Culture
Neuropsychology and Humor Intervention and Prevention of Medical and Mental Illness

5 Disclaimers Information presented in this talk is a combination of research, communications with police, and personal experiences There will be information about police culture in this presentation that may be uncomfortable to hear. It is included to provide a realistic view of police culture. Editing the examples of dark humor would sanitize the information and therefore not be an accurate reflection of the culture. This talk focuses on American police culture.

6 Ice Breaker from “The Police Daily: The Lighter Side of Law Enforcement”

7 The Job To understand police culture, one should better understand the police experience. I challenge the audience to mentally put themselves into the shoes of a police officer. If you have a reaction to any of the material presented, bring your thoughts back to how it must be to be the police. Imagine how it must feel to not know if you will go home after work.

8 Some examples of what police see
Death and Homicides elderly, shot, murdered, dismemberment, injuries from traffic collisions Violence gang, domestic, animals Mental Illness Psychoses, suicidal attempts Drugs Behavioral and emotional dysinhibition

9 Specific examples of what police see
Dead infant who died for being placed next to a radiator or a baby “chopped to pieces” (Fletcher, p.43) “Floaters” from dead body engorged with water in bathtub or river Finding a fellow police officer dead (e.g., committed suicide by hanging) Man crushed by 18,500 lbs of aluminum Homeless man punctured by a tree branch, in his dirty clothing with fecal matter and urine (Vivona, 2012)

10 Quote about suicidal driver
A police officer talked with a driver for 45 minutes and thought that the threat of suicide subsided. After the person still shot himself in the head, the officer thought to himself… “From time to time I still question whether I could have said something or done something differently to prevent the end result.” (Fletcher, p.43)

11 Examples of Other Stressors
Organizational Culture: External: Lack of support from government (e.g., not getting ink cartridges for printers) Internal: Interdepartmental politics (e.g., animosity of those officers benefitting from having connections) Lack of support from the public and media. Police culture has a negative connotation Family not understanding the daily grind, social isolation from family, high divorce rate Physical & other emotional stressors

12 Police Culture Danger promotes brotherhood “Us versus them” attitude
Not just criminals, but defense and prosecuting attorneys & court system Patrols versus lieutenants (especially the ones who do not earn their positions) (Woody, 2005; Paoline, 2003; Communications with police)

13 Police Culture Similar to the military subculture Survival is central
Culture of honor (of self and society) This subculture is not static and is subject to change because of the integration of ethnicities, inclusion of women, gay, and transgender in the force. But the brotherhood aspect of the culture seems stable. (Woody, 2005; Paoline, 2003; Communications with police)

14 Police Culture – Gender Differences
Men are not as open to talk to female officers Men might treat female officers more like “sisters” (protect) or see them as “princesses” (those women that do not work hard) Female officers can be more willing than the women in the general population talk about “male-oriented” conversations

15 The Need for Humor “While most officers felt that their humor had become much darker, and that this was simply a way of dealing with events, and that was a necessary component of being a cop… several officers also acknowledged that ‘other people’ did not understand the function of this dark humor.” Coughlin (2002)

16 Police & Humor Coughlin in his dissertation (2002) surveyed 96 police officers, 97% used gallows humor at work Gallows humor correlated with group cohesion However… Gallows humor also correlated with aggressive humor toward others and self-depreciative humor

17 Police & Humor Aggressive humor is found to be caused by job- related stress Self-depreciative humor was found to be caused by “emotional exhaustion” “Negative humor has been found to be a barometer of emotional exhaustion and burnout” Avtgis & Taber (2006) as cited in Vivona (2012); Coughlin (2002)

18 Vivona (2012) wrote in his dissertation:
“An inherent purposefulness was behind the humor; officers used it to include and exclude others from the group, various types of humor made hierarchical statuses clear, and jokes were made towards the wide variety of characters and strange circumstances police encounter in their daily routines.”

19 Police & Humor One officer said that “humor is used so you can get through the day” Examples: Super troopers: Repeat Game, Cat Game Christmas deer Poking fun at people and letting off steam on blogs Police Limit comicstrip by Garey McKee limit-comic/

20 Definition and Examples
Dark Humor Definition and Examples

21 Definitions of Dark or Gallows Humor
The juxtaposition of morbid and farcical (ludicrous, absurd) elements to give a disturbing effect (The Free Dictionary) A form of humor that regards human suffering as absurd rather than pitiable, or that considers human existence as ironic and pointless but somehow comic (Dictionary reference) An ability to perceive the ludicrous, the comical, and the absurd in human life and the express these usually without bitterness (Merriam-Webster) All definitions are quoted

22 Gallows Humor PLEASE NOTE: Police do not view death as funny.
It is the creative way of perceiving the ludicrous in life that leads to the police humor, not the making fun of death.

23 When does gallows humor happen?
In Crisis situations or in situations when one is faced with the incomprehensible as a mode to cope cognitively and emotionally. First responders such as emergency room staff, paramedics, police, fire, soldiers Stress breeds cynicism, which likely contributes to gallows humor (Woody, 2005)

24 Historical Freud considered humor as a defense mechanism which is a way to cope with anxiety or “deny the severity of the situation” Logan viewed that humor helped cope with trauma. This helps police officers remain in control. Schiraldi believed that humor helps with bonding, transforms suffering by decreasing negative emotions, and improves physiological immunity (Maxwell, 2003)

25 Why Dark Humor instead of Light Humor?
Gallows humor facilitated increased… Group cohesion Maintenance of perspective on problems, allowing the police officers to see the ‘big picture’ Distraction (Coughlin)

26 Gallows Humor & Distraction
In a study, subjects felt more negative emotions after being exposed to more negative pictures than mildly negative pictures. The humor helped modulate negative emotions because of the cognitive distraction (Strick et al, 2009). Distraction has also historically worked to decrease pain in patients.

27 Dark Humor examples with the Police
Vivona (2012) studied crime scene investigators. CSIs see the worst. Example of a DV call: “I answered a domestic one time; by the time I got there, this woman was kneeling next to her husband, holding his throat together with both hands. She had slashed his throat from ear to ear. Then she had a change of heart, I guess.” (Fletcher, p.33)

28 Neuropsychology: The effects of humor on the brain and body
Benefits of Humor Neuropsychology: The effects of humor on the brain and body

29 Brain and Body benefits
Laughter increases sympathetic arousal (James- Lange theory). After the initial increase in blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate, and skin temperature there is muscle relaxation. Laughter has been found to decrease spinal motor excitability which contributes to relaxation. “Post-laughter relaxation can last up to 45 minutes!” (Fry, 1992 as cited in Coughlin; Paskind et al as cited in Bennett and Lengacher, 2007)

30 How does sympathetic arousal differ between laughter and stress?
Both laughter and stress activate the sympathetic nervous system. Laughter seems to “buffer some of the negative effects of sympathetic activation upon blood pressure.” There is some mechanism with laughter that is positively correlated to improved body functioning and relaxation. (Bennett and Lengacher, 2007)

31 Brain and Body Effects EMG studies show increased muscle tension during laughter, consistent with the above findings Example: Observations during EMG biofeedback with TBI & neck pain patient: initially increased muscle tension, then a rapid decrease in tension

32 Brain and Body benefits continued
Norman Cousins in 1979 used humor to help heal his own medical illness. He was familiar with Hans Selye’s work on stress and immunology. Humor  positive emotions  positive chemical changes  decreased pain  increased immunity (Coughlin, 2002)

33 A More Detailed Chain of events
Stimulus  positive emotions/laughter  release of endorphins & enkephalins (pain modulators), dopamine (reward, sympathetic arousal), serotonin (mood, memory, learning)  increased good feelings & group cohesiveness  decreased pain  increased immunoglobulin A (antibody that assists with getting rid of infections)

34 Laughter increased pain threshold
In Dunbar et al (2011), results showed that after laughing, pain thresholds were higher, reinforcing the theory that endorphins are released to help deal with pain and increase one’s sense of well-being. Researchers studied in the lab and naturalistic settings.

35 Brain and Body benefits
Endorphin release: Dunbar et al. (2011) summarized research that only Duchenne laughter (unforced, stimulus induced) can “mitigate negative emotions and stress.” Endorphins are neurotransmitters that originate in the pituitary gland and act as natural pain killers, increase the immune response, and increase one’s subjective feeling of euphoria or well-being (

36 Quote to ponder: “Laughter contrasts with many more conventional aspects of non-verbal communication in one important respect: it seems to create euphoric states in the performer similar to those experienced in communal music-making, dancing, and some of the rituals of religion.” Dunbar et al., 2011

37 Contrary to this research…
Kerkkänen, P., Kuiper, N.A. & Martin, R.A., (2004) found that there were no real benefits of humor

38 Meta-analysis limitations
Study focused on 1-2 physical variables in cross sectional designs (one point in time), not longitudinal Relied upon self-reports, not objective evidence Studies did not associate use of humor and “health-related habits” (smoking, drinking, nutrition)

39 Study of Finnish Police Officers
Addressed some limitations in previous slide Physiological measures were used (BP, serum cholesterol and body mass, which deal with heart risk) Addressed lifestyle and sense of humor Longitudinal design Added humor and sense of well-being at work Kerkkänen et al., 2004

40 Results of Finnish study
No support that humor improved physical health, however sense of humor increased health-related lifestyle behaviors Why? Small study Are there cultural variables? Were to correct measures used? Can this study results be generalized to American police officers? (Kerkkänen et al., 2004)

41 The Neuropsychology of Humor
Parts of the brain that are involved with humor

42 Getting the joke Studies have shown that “setting up” the joke involves the left hemisphere (LH) whereas “getting” the joke involves the right hemisphere (RH) The vmPFC “appreciates” the joke Those with RH damage has more difficulty with understanding humor. Individuals with right frontal damage did not even show outward expressions such as smiling or laughter

43 Reward center of brain Studies have found that watching humor (standup comedians) or reading humor (comics) will increase the activation (fMRI) in the brain regions that deal with the reward system Midbrain / limbic region Nucleus accumbens & ventral tegmental area Caudate nucleus Putamen Amygdala and hippocampus The orbitofrontal region (Franklin & Adams, 2011; Coughlin, 2002; Mobbs et al, 2003; Carlson, 2011)

44 Reward Center /

45 Reward center of brain Another study did not find activation in these areas, but did show that the following are important with humor: The postural temporal and inferior frontal regions (language centers) are involved in humor detection or getting the joke The insular cortex is involved with humor appreciation or emotions after getting the joke, and may play a part in pain modulation. (The insular cortex is deep in the Sylvian fissure that separates the frontal-parietal lobes from the temporal). (Moran et al, 2004; Mobbs et al, 2003; The Free Dictionary)

46 Reward center of brain Note these limitations:
Overt laughter decreases when you are alone Suppression of laughter (while in an MRI machine) is also a variable that could have affected results Studies were small (Moran et al, 2004; Mobbs et al, 2003)

47 More studies needed But still more studies are needed to better understand the neurological aspects of humor. Researchers are looking at the difference between verbal and nonverbal cues in humor presentation, the type or genre of humor, gender of presenter, mental state of presenter and audience, and how one tells the joke (execution of humor).

48 Interventions With Humor

49 Traditional Interventions
Individual therapy Group therapy Stress management Relaxation training Bibliotherapy Music therapy Exercise

50 Police Culture and Therapy
Please note that the police culture is unique Be authentic Build rapport – it is the relationship Assess of critical incident stress debriefing, depression management and other prominent issues are more appropriate to address Separation from the job is essential. Some police cannot leave the job.

51 Humor Therapy Within an individual session, one could recommend
Comedy shows B rated movies A hobby that will contain much laughter Being silly with family or friends Being open to laughing at oneself Looking for the absurdity in everyday life Simply spend time with others rather than isolative. Funny incidences come up naturally.

52 Humor Therapy CBT: Infuse humor into cognitive strategies to reduce stress. Psychoeducation on the physiological benefits: laughter reduces muscle tension, improves immunity and cardiac fitness. View laughter as exercise. Work with the police officer and tell him or her that it is ok to be silly instead of appearing in control all of the time

53 Therapy with Police What create therapeutic humor-infused
therapeutic approaches can you think of? Ethics question: Are you breaching any ethical codes if you encourage laughter on the job, knowing that much of this laughter will derive from everyday job-related incidents, possibly including the morbid absurdity of individuals or situations?

54 In other words… Is it unethical to suggest using Dark humor to help modulate negative emotions?

55 References Bennett, M.P. and Cecdile Lengacher (2007). Humor and Laughter May Influence Health: III, Laughter and Health outcomes. Advanced Access Publication, 17. Bumbak, A.R. (2011). Dynamic Police Training. Boca Raton: CRC Press. Coughlin, J.L. (2002). Gallows Humor and Its Use Among Police Officers. Dissertation. Dunbar, R.M., Baron, R., Frangou, A., Pearce, E., van Leeuwen, E.J.C., Barra, V. & van Vugt, M. (2001). Social Laughter is Correlated with an Elevated Pain Threshold. Proceedings of the Royal Society Biological Sciences. Doi: /rspb Fletcher, C. (1990). What Cops Know. New York: Pocket Books. Franklin, R.G. and Adams, R.B. (2011). The Reward of a Good Joke: Neural Correlates of viewing Dynamic Displays of Stand-up Comedy. Cognitive and Affective Behavioral Neuroscience, 11, Herrman, J.D. (1989). Sudden Death and the Police Officer. Issues in Comprehensive Pediatric Nursing, 12, Kerkkänen, P., Kuiper, N.A. & Martin, R.A. (2004). Sense of Humor, Physical Health, and well-being at work: A Three-year Longitudinal Study of Finnish Police Officers. Humor, 17-1/2, Maxwell, W. (2003). Use of Gallows Humor and Dark Humor. WEMH, 5, 2, Mobbs, D., Greicius, M.D., Abdel-Azim, E., Menon, V. and Allan L. Reiss (2003). Humor Modulates the Mesolimbic Reward Centers. Neuron, 40,

56 References continued Moran, J.M., Wig, G.S., Adams, R., Janta, P & Willam M. Kelly (2004). Neural Correlates of Humor Detection and Appreciation. Neuroimage 21, Paoline, E.A. (2003). Taking Stock: Toward a Richer Understanding of Police Culture. Journal of Criminal Justice, 31, Strick, M., Holland, R.W., can Baaren, R.B. and Ad van Knippenberg (2009). Finding Comfort in a joke: Consolatory Effects of Humor Through Cognitive Distraction. Emotion, 9, 4, Vivona, B.D. (2012). Was that Levity or Livor Mortis? Crime Scene Investigators’ Perspectives on Humor and Work. Dissertation, Northern Illinois University. Woody, R.H. (2005). The Police Culture: Research Implications for Psychological Services. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 36, 5, E-References Black Humor: Dictionary Reference: The Free Dictionary: The Journal of Neuroscience: The Police Daily:

57 Thank you for your attention
Thank you for your attention. You can download this presentation at: at the bottom of the web resources page. If you have questions about this presentation, me at: Erika L. Liljedahl, Psy.D.

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