PsychologicalReports, 1990, 66, 1027-1036.

O Psychological Reports 1990

EFFECT O F EXPOSURE TO HUMOROUS STIMULI O N INDUCED DEPRESSION AMY DANZER, J. ALEXANDER DALE,' AND HERBERT L. KLIONS Allegheny College Summary.-In testing the hypothesis that exposure to humor may be used to relieve the symptoms of depression, 38 female undergraduates were shown depressive slides of the Velten (1968) mood statements and then assigned to one of three groups. One group heard a humorous audiotape, the second group heard a nonhumorous tape, while a third waiting control heard no tape. Heart rate and zygornatic (smile) and corrugator (frown) muscle tensions were recorded during slide and tape presentations. The Multiple Affect Adjective Check List, administered before and after slide and tape presentations, showed depression induction was successful. Only the humor group decreased depression scores to the preexperimental baseline, although both the humor and waiting groups showed significant decreases in depression scores after the treatment. Zygomatic muscle tension was greater during the humor treatment than other treatments. Heart rate decreased across depression induction for the waiting control only, but increased during the humor and nonhumor treatments. Seven women, who were not included in the above analysis because their initial MAACL depression scores were at least one SD above the mean, showed a paradoxical decrease in depression scores after the depression induction. Implications of the results as they relate to possible interventions for depression are dtscussed.

"[The] belief in humor's importance for good mental health seems to have resulted from the common experience of most people that humor is often capable of elevating us from the grips of depression or other negative mental states" (McGhee, 1979, p. 227). Ellis (1977), Meichenbaum (1977), Beck (1976), and others have developed theoretical systems focusing on the roles played by cognitions, beliefs, and self-instruction on mood and behavior. Velten (1968) formulated a cognitive technique to induce depression and elation in normal subjects. Velten's subjects read 60 progressively depressive or elative items or neutral items and reflected on the message conveyed by the items. Mood changes as measured by various behavioral tests were observed and concluded to be mediated through self-instruction and cognitive changes. These effects have been replicated in a number of studies (Kenealy, 1986; Berkowitz & Troccoli, 1986). Riccelli, Antila, Dale, and Klions (1989), using the Velten paradigm, compared the effect of the mood-induction technique with the effect of modifying facial expressions in contributing mood. These authors concluded

'Thanks to Barbara Anderson, Barbara Lodge and Caroline Mitchell for their help in com ding the data. Amy Danzer is now at Princeton Universit Inquiries and requests for reprints sgould be sent to J. Alexander Dale, Department of ~ ~ ~ c h o iBox b ; 39, ~ ~ Allegheny , College, Meadville, PA 16335.



that the primary influence on emotion came from the cognitive mood-induction sequences. Each subject completed a depression and elation mood induction. Half of these subjects completed the elation sequence then the depression sequence, and their depression scores increased with the depression induction and subsequently decreased with the elation induction. Therefore, the elation induction appears to be a good therapy analogue for intervention in depression, as it appears that cognitions in the elative condition seem to reduce depression scores. A potentially similar technique for modifying depressive cognitions may be humor. Nezu, Nezu, and Blissett (1988), in a prospective analysis, found that one's sense of humor served as a moderator of stress for depressive symptoms. Martin and Lefcourt (1983) also reported that cognitive involvement in humor during stress was important in reducing the effect of the stress. It may be then that both the elative induction techniques of Velten and the use of humor are similar in their propensity to mediate cognitions and self-instruction by interfering with depressive cognitions. Humor and laughter may be beneficial in depression reduction through "rapid perceptual-cognitive switches in frames of reference" (O'Connell, 1976, p. 327). In fact, Salameh (1983) noted many clinicians include humor in their therapeutic procedures. Farrely and Mathews (1981) and O'Connell (1981) reported relying heavily on humor in their clinical approaches. Humor has been regarded as a coping capacity (O'Connell, 1976), a tension outlet (Jacobson, 1971; McGhee, 1979) and an ego defense mechanism (Jacobson, 1971). In clinical patients, humor has been negatively correlated with depression. Nussbaum and Michaux (1963) used humor and laughter to test the severity of depression and the progress of recovery in their patients but did not test to see if humor itself had an effect. Prerost (1985) used humorous imagery as a major part of psychotherapy for depression and found positive results in a case application. A number of theorists have regarded humor as a positive defense mechanism or as a coping response (Freud, 1960; Allport, 1950; Dixon, 1980). Yovetich, Dale, and Hudak (1990) demonstrated the efficacy of humor and sense of humor in coping with anxiety in anticipation of an electric shock. Humor has also been shown to help subjects cope with discomfort (Cogan, Cogan, Waltz, & McCue, 1987; Hudak, Dale, Hudak, & DeGood, 1989). McClelland, Ross, and Patel (1985) reported humor improved subjects' immunocompetence. Cousins (1979) concluded that humor was a critical element of a miraculous cure for his physical illness. Kemeuy, Costello, U o n s , and Dale (1983) used the Velten technique to induce depression and elation in groups that scored either high or low on the Beck Depression Scale. Nondepressed subjects progressively increased forehead-muscle tension during depression but depressed subjects showed a para-



doxical decrease in forehead tension during depression. The authors speculated that the depressed subjects were actually becoming more comfortable after having been presented the depressing statements, so data for depressed subjects should be analyzed separately from those of nondepressed subjects given the potential differences in response to induction of depression. Schwartz, Brown, and Ahern (1980) recommended that researchers studying facial expressions confine themselves to the study of women where there is a need to make efficient use of subjects because they found women to be more consistent in facial reactions than men. The women generated more muscle from the corrugator (brow corrugation) and zygomatic (lip s d e ) muscle during emotional tasks than men. Those muscles have been observed to be active when subjects express depression and elation, as noted in the Facial Action Coding System (Ekman & Friesen, 1978). Klions, Saunders, Hudak, Dale, and Klions (1987) reported similar findings during a problem-solving task. The authors decided to use women only in the present study. The current study concerned the possibility of using humor to counteract induced depression. Depression scores on the Multiple Adjective Affect Check List, MAACL (Zuckerman & Lubin, 1965), were expected to increase for all subjects after a depression-induction condition. Similar increases were expected for hostility and anxiety indices on the MAACL, since RiccelLi, et al. (1989) found the negative emotions of hostility and anxiety were also increased by depressive statements. The most effective decrease in these indices of negative emotionality was expected to be found in a humor-treatment group. Corrugator muscle activity (anger and depression) was expected to increase and zygomatic muscIe activity (smile) was expected to decrease for all subjects during the depression induction. I n the Riccelli, et al. (1989) study, groups not instructed to modify their facial expressions, evidenced more zygomatic muscle activity during elation induction than depression and more brow corrugator during depression induction. During the humor-treatment condition in the present study, zygomatic muscle activity was expected to increase while these increases were not predicted over the other two conditions, since Yovetich, et al. (1900) observed more zygomatic activity during a humor condition than a nonhumor condition or a waiting condition. I n the present study, heart rate was expected to be highest during the humor condition because, as Fry and Salameh (1987) have hypothesized, laughter should increase sympathetically mediated responses.


Thirty-eight 18- to 28-yr.-old women undergraduates from a small liberal arts college participated in the experiment in exchange for additional credit



in an introductory psychology class. They were randomly assigned to one of three groups. Seven more women were separated from the main experimental analysis because their preexperimental depression scores on the Check List were at least one standard deviation above the mean. Although Kennelly, et al. (1983) suggested depressed subjects be separated for analysis, there were not enough depressed subjects to create three additional groups for study.

Procedure Each subject was tested individually in a laboratory adjacent to an experimental control room. Each was first asked to fill out the Multiple Affect Adjective Check List, then electrodes were placed on the subject. Heart rate was taken for a 30-sec. baseline period immediately prior to the presentation of the depressive slides. Subjects were presented with 20 progressively more depressing typed slides from the Velten (1968) mood statements. They were presented one by one for 15 sec. each by means of a rear-view projection screen in a Lehigh Test Systems Human Test System. Subjects were asked to first read each statement to themselves, read it out loud and then think about it and try to feel it. Heart rate and muscle tensions were recorded throughout the presentation of the slides. Subjects were monitored for facial electromyogram tension levels from the zygomatic (smile) and corrugator (frown) muscles (Ekman & Friesen, 1978; Riccelli, et al., 1989; Fridlund & Caccioppo, 1986), both from the right side of the face. Electrocardiogram responses were recorded on a Grass Model 7 polygraph. An IBM PC-XT laboratory computer interfaced by a Teckmar Lab Tender Interface presented the stimuli every 15 sec. and recorded the average physiological responses for that time period. Following this phase, subjects again completed the Check List. The subjects were then assigned to their respective groups. The humor group listened to an 11.5-min. tape from routines of popular comedians humorously discussing social themes (Bill Cosby and Robin Williams, by permission). The nonhumor control group heard an 11.5-min. tape of an introductory geology test which included a rather lively discussion of volcanos and other interesting geological phenomena (Larson & Birkeland, 1982). That tape was read by a male voice. The waiting control group heard no tape, but experienced the same period of time in silence. Frequency of muscle tension responses above criterion and heart rate were recorded during each of these treatments. At the conclusion of this phase, the Check List was again completed. The subjects went through a procedure of elation induction (Velten, 1968) to reverse any adverse effects the experiment may have produced and were fully debriefed. Postdepression and posttreatment Check List scores were corrected for pretreatment differences by subtracting the preexperimental scores. The corrected scores were designated difference scores and analyzed as a groups (3)



by time (2) analysis of variance. Frequency of heart beats and muscle tension responses over each depression slide (15 sec.) and each 20-sec. period of the treatment or control conditions were analyzed with a group (3) by periods, (20) for depression and (30) for treatment, analysis of variance. The desired depression induction was effective as an analysis of variance showed a significant increase in the depression scores on the Check List between the pre- and postdepression-induction samplings (F,,,, = 31.01, p

Effect of exposure to humorous stimuli on induced depression.

In testing the hypothesis that exposure to humor may be used to relieve the symptoms of depression, 38 female undergraduates were shown depressive sli...
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