Comedian Mel Brooks at dedication ceremony

The Impact of Humor on Decision-Making

A sense of humor is an invaluable thing. Not only does it endear us to each other and help to form bonds between us, but it can be a lifesaver in unthinkable conditions. According to Linda Henman’s doctorate research, this was the case for many prisoners of war. In her extensive experience coaching executives, she’s found it can be equally powerful in driving business success.

In 1974, Mel Brooks directed the blockbuster comedy, Young Frankenstein.  In the movie, Dr. Frederick Frankenstein learns he has inherited his infamous grandfather’s estate in Transylvania, along with his manuals and lab notes. After initially resisting any connection to his grandfather, Frederick becomes fascinated by the idea of creating his own monster after he discovers his grandfather’s book, How I Did It. As Frederick discovered, understanding a researcher’s conclusions often starts by knowing how he or she did it. Here’s how I discovered the importance of humor in decision-making.

I first studied decision-making while working on my Ph.D. in 1994. I conducted long-term original research on 138 American POWs (including John McCain) who had survived five or more years of brutal imprisonment. The study, under the direction of the U. S. Navy, uncovered the pivotal decisions the POWs made to stay resilient — decisions about their beliefs, identity and life’s purpose. I didn’t expect to discover that humor had guided these decisions, but that’s what happened, and these research findings have influenced my work with executives ever since.

Before I began my work with the POWs, I had learned that most communication theorists and researchers consider the appropriate use of humor an aspect of communication competence. Nonetheless, most people most of the time cannot or will not produce humorous messages. Most people usually function as receivers rather than as sources of humor. We appreciate humor as a positive force in our lives, so why don’t more of us rely on it more consistently?

Since personality traits and behavioral repertoires differentiate high- and low-humor-oriented people, we know not everyone has the communication skills, personality traits or cognitive abilities to create humor. Researchers have found links between a sense of humor and personality traits such as extroversion, lower anxiety levels, internal locus of control and independence. They have also found a positive relationship between a person’s skill in creating humor and the ability to make a good first impression.

Therefore, we can infer the reason more people do not effectively produce humorous messages: Not everyone has the predisposition, nor the communicative proficiency to generate funny thoughts — much less humorous messages. The VPOWs did have these traits, however. The personality traits of this group, coupled with their training and maturity, allowed these men to utilize humor as a coping behavior more than other groups in captivity had been able do.

I completed my work for the navy in 1998, but that didn’t end my fascination with humor. In the ensuing years, as I worked as a consultant, I have witnessed countless examples of humor defusing conflict, building rapport, uniting people and fostering creative decisions. That’s why I devoted a chapter in my newest book, Tough Calls, to a better understanding of how humor works. I called it “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Bottom Line.” You can read the first chapter of my newest book here.

The VPOW accounts indicate these men formed a system that defined and encouraged humor among the group’s members. These men relied on humor not in spite of the crisis, but because of it. Control is central to individuals’ health, their personal benefits and, in the case of the Vietnam POWs, their actual survival. Even if they weren’t aware of how they were using humor to help them with their decision-making, that’s what they did. From them, I discovered why the rest of us should learn from their hard-earned lessons.

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Dr. Linda Henman, The Decision Catalyst ®, is the author of six books and the founder of the Henman Performance Group, a leadership consulting firm located in St. Louis, MO. Linda helps C-suite leaders make decisions that they must get right and can’t afford to get wrong. In more than 35 years, none of her projects has failed. Some of her clients include leaders in organizations like Avon, Emerson, Estee Lauder, Kraft, and Tyson. She can be reached at www.henmanperformancegroup.com.


Linda Henman

Dr. Linda Henman is one of those rare experts who can say she’s a coach, consultant, speaker, and author. For more than 30 years, she has worked with Fortune 500 Companies and small businesses that want to think strategically, grow dramatically, promote intelligently, and compete successfully today and tomorrow. Some of her clients include Emerson Electric, Boeing, Avon and Tyson Foods. She was one of eight experts who worked directly with John Tyson after his company’s acquisition of International Beef Products, one of the most successful acquisitions of the twentieth century.

Linda holds a Ph.D. in organizational systems and two Master of Arts degrees in both interpersonal communication and organization development and a Bachelor of Science degree in communication. Whether coaching executives or members of the board, Linda offers clients coaching and consulting solutions that are pragmatic in their approach and sound in their foundation—all designed to create exceptional organizations.

She is the author of Landing in the Executive Chair: How to Excel in the Hot Seat, The Magnetic Boss: How to Become the Leader No One Wants to Leave, and contributing editor and author to Small Group Communication, among other works.

Dr. Henman can be reached at linda@henmanperformancegroup.com.

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