Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Dec 26, 2019

Funny or Offensive? Reactions to Online Disparaging Humor

by Emma F. Thomas
Shocked young man, looking at smartphone

Imagine you are scrolling through a social media site, such as Facebook, when you come across a post shared by one of your friends. The post gives you pause – it’s kind of funny but, on the other hand, it also trades on a stereotype of a disadvantaged or minority group that some people may find offensive. Is this harmless fun? Or is it prejudice? Should you be amused? Or angry?

People are often exposed to humor that disparages others, and that is especially true on social media. Research suggests that, even though it sometimes looks harmless enough, the effects of disparagement humor are far from benign: such humor can reinforce stereotypes and create a context where intolerant or derogatory attitudes become seen as accepted and commonplace.

What are the conditions under which people see disparagement humor as a harmful form of intergroup prejudice that needs to be confronted rather than as light-hearted levity?

My colleagues and I devised a series of experiments to understand responses to disparaging humor in the context of an online environment. We told participants that they were participating in research on viral online video clips. Their task was to view the series of clips and rate them by clicking a thumbs up ‘like’ button or a thumbs down ‘dislike’ button. They were also asked to leave a comment to be viewed by others. The site was set-up to look and operate like a video sharing site (for Study 1), or a very well-known social network service (for Studies 2 and 3). Crucially, one of the clips featured a remark that perpetrated, in ostensibly “humorous” form, stereotypes of gay people.

Without participants knowing it, we created three versions of the disparaging humor webpage. Each version had the same clip but the ratings and comments ostensibly left by other users were very different. Doing so allowed us to examine whether the reactions of other social media users changed how our research participants experienced questionable comedy. Just as the impact of live comedy is influenced by laughter or boos from the audience, in an online environment, other social media users may play a role in whether people interpret a given remark as prejudice or as harmless humor.

Some of the participants viewed the disparaging clip alongside ratings suggesting that other users ‘liked’ the clip and comments suggesting that they thought that it was funny. Other participants viewed content suggesting that other users did not like the clip and thought that it was offensive. A third group viewed the clip without any ratings or comments by other users.  

The studies showed that people responded to the same clip in very different ways depending on the reactions expressed by other social media users. Participants who thought other users were angered by the clip tended to be more confrontational in their own comments: For example, one of our participants called out the clip by writing that it was “OFFENSIVE!!!”. Conversely, participants who thought other users viewed the clip as funny tended to comment in a way that corroborated the entertainment value of the clip (“Soooooo funny…”).

Given that prejudice is no laughing matter, our findings suggest that people are less likely to interpret disparagement humor as a form of prejudice when other people do not seem to think it is offensive.

Our results attest to the role that bystanders play in shaping what people view as prejudice that needs to be confronted versus harmless banter to be enjoyed and shared. The widespread dissemination of disparagement humor risks creating an environment in which marginalizing commentary directed at members of racial, sexual, or ethnic minorities becomes mundane and commonplace. As you scroll through your Facebook or Twitter feed, it’s worth remembering the powerful role that you can play in confronting such content.

For Further Reading

Thomas, E.F., McGarty, C., Spears, R., Livingstone, A.G., Platow, M., Lala, G. & Mavor, K. (2020). ‘That’s not funny!’ Standing up against disparaging humor. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 86.


Emma F. Thomas is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Flinders University. She studies intra- and inter-group relations, and social change.


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Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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