Who needs Mensa? If you want to find out if someone has a high IQ, just tell them a string of sick jokes and then gauge their reaction.
A new study in the journal Cognitive Processing has found that intelligence plays a key role in the appreciation of black humour – as well as several other factors, notably a person’s aggression levels.
A team of researchers, led by Ulrike Willinger at the Medical University of Vienna,asked 156 people, who had an average age of 33 and included 76 women, to rate their comprehension and enjoyment of 12 darkly humorous cartoons taken from The Black Book by the renowned German cartoonist Uli Stein.
Examples include a cartoon depicting a morgue where a physician lifts a cover sheet off a body. A woman confirms: “Sure, that’s my husband – anyway, which washing powder did you use to get that so white?”
Participants were also tested for verbal and non-verbal IQ and asked about their mood, aggression and educational background.
The British Psychological Society Research Digest blog reports that the study found three groups of participants. The group with the highest sick humour appreciation and comprehension scored the highest in verbal and non-verbal IQ tests, were better educated, and scored lower for aggression and bad mood.
A second group showed moderate comprehension of the jokes but enjoyed them the least. These were people with average intelligence scores, but had the highest negative mood and the highest aggression levels.
The third group showed moderate sick humour comprehension and preference, had average intelligence scores, but were generally of a positive mood and had moderate aggression scores.
The findings contradict earlier theories about the relationship between aggression and humour. As early as 1905, Freud hypothesised that humour allows for a safe release of usually repressed sexual and aggressive urges.
“This fits with past research showing that sense of humour correlates with IQ, but refutes the somewhat commonly-held belief that people who like black humour tend to be grumpy and perhaps a little prone to sadism,” the digest said.
Willinger and her team said their findings suggested that appreciating black humour was a “complex information-processing task” in which negative moods and high aggression levels could cloud people’s ability to get the joke.