An Interview With Psychologist Kathryn Hahner


Kathryn Hahner, PhD is a Licensed Psychologist who is an expert on the psychology of humor; here is a link to her website:

Q: What made you choose psychology as a profession?

A: There are many branches of psychology, different from each other. I won’t list them all, but for example, Physiological Psychologists are expert in the workings of the nervous system and wouldn’t know about treating and diagnosing mental disorders, the realm of Clinical Psychology. Industrial/Organizational Psychologists work in the corporate world with systems and procedures. Cognitive Psychologists do research in memory and thinking.
My doctorate is in Social and Personality Psychology, a branch of experimental psychology that deals with the science of social interaction (the Social Psych side) and the psychology of the individual (Personality Psych.) It’s geared toward college teaching and research, and I did each. I was drawn to this branch of psychology because I have always wanted to know what makes people tick. I’m good at generating hypotheses and critiquing research, but I knew while still a grad student that I didn’t have the superior quantitative and methodological skills to compete in the research and academic market.
I began training in Clinical Psychology outside grad school, found that I liked treating people with all kinds of problems and was good at it. When I applied for licensure way back when, the work experience I presented as one of the requirements, was in Clinical. Nowadays, to sit for the licensing exam in any state, the doctorate can’t be in a different branch of psychology from that of the work experience. We split credential psychologists are “scientific practitioners,” a vanishing breed.

Q: What made you interested in the psychology of humor?

A: Most psychoanalysts (I am not one!) see humor as a defense mechanism or as a way of expressing so-called “repressed” material of an aggressive or sexual nature. The very concepts of “defense mechanism” and “repression” make me want to laugh. No good data exist to support these pieces of dogma that are examples of circular reasoning; the proof that something is repressed is that we can’t remember it…Huh?!? And how do we know that joking is a defense against (whatever)? – because psychoanalytic theory says so. I have known since I was a child that humor, whether in everyday life or performed (which is comedy) is a survival technique. It is a way to transcend pain, suffering, boredom and tragedy.
To understand what makes something funny is a goal I’ve had most of my life, and it’s an impossible one. No philosopher, social scientist, or for that matter, comedian, has ever been able to pinpoint the difference between a dramatic statement and a comedic one, except that the comedic one makes us laugh. But why do we laugh? I wanted the experiment for my doctoral dissertation to provide the answer, and after reviewing the existing research literature, I realized I couldn’t even pose the question. This was because the theories of humor were all flawed, some more than others, and what dominated the field was what’s known as “superiority humor theory,” a mean spirited approach beloved to the behaviorists (don’t get me started…google “behaviorism in psychology” and see for yourself) – and first promulgated by the philosopher Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century. Basically, the theory is that all humor can be reduced to a way of making oneself feel superior to others. Put-down humor does exist, but it’s only one kind, and it’s seldom that funny.
So, I designed an experiment to test the hypothesis that members of what’s called a “reference group” in Social Psychology will not mind jokes about their own group, as long as they think the jokes are coming from a group member, and will not appreciate the same jokes if they come from an outsider. The data supported my hypothesis. People not only make fun of themselves – they can transcend all kinds of trouble through this kind of humor. I’m not advocating for self-deprecation; it’s a fine line. My all time favorite stand-up comedian is Richard Pryor. He took the most tragic events of his life and made them hilariously funny. No one ever did it as well, and probably no one ever will. Recently, Jay Leno said in an interview that Pryor was the funniest comedian he’d ever seen.

Q: What did your research for your dissertation on humor entail?

A: In many Social Psychology experiments, the subjects in the research think we’re looking at one thing, and we’re really looking at something else; basically, the experimenter lies! The reference groups I used were African American students in Black Studies classes, female feminist college students and Jewish students. I ran out of money part of the way through, so limited the groups to Black Studies students and feminists.
I sent my assistants into the classrooms, and they read a script that explained that the research was about what makes jokes funny. The same jokes (in written form) were given to all subjects to rate, but some of the Black Studies students, using them as an example, were told by my assistant (an African American) that the jokes were written by an African American, and they were shown a photo supposedly of this writer. Some of the jokes were neutral in content, others had African Americans as the butt of the jokes. The students who believed the jokes came from an African American rated the jokes with an African American as the joke butt higher than did the students who were presented with the same jokes, but where the experimenter (my assistant) was white, they were told the person who wrote the jokes was white, and the photo was of a white writer. In fact, in one of the classes, the white assistant had to grab the joke booklets and run, the students were so angered by black jokes from a white writer. Data from the feminist subjects didn‘t support the hypothesis; won’t go into what I suspect to be the reasons.
If you’re thinking “Duh – isn’t it obvious that you have to be a member of the group to make fun of it?” you’re right. Sadly, I needed to demonstrate the obvious when the reigning theory of the day was that people never laugh at themselves, that all humor can be reduced to putting someone else down. I won’t even go into what the psychoanalysts think humor is about; don’t get me started on them either…psychoanalysis and behaviorism – two enemy camps that are actually two sides of the same coin, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s a counterfeit coin.

Q: What does a person’s sense of humor say about their psychological makeup?

A: Let’s take two famous comedians whose brand of humor says much about their personalities. First my idol, Richard Pryor. He made the horror shows of his life hilarious – a heart attack, being an abused kid, running down the street on fire, racism. He died slowly of multiple sclerosis, and he was brilliant to the very end. He didn’t just die with dignity; as he grew more ill, he championed the rights of the most victimized creatures – animals – sentient beings that are property under the law and regularly abused by humans. Then there’s Jerry Seinfeld. He has said that his comedy is “about nothing.” I couldn’t agree more. Seinfeld is very rich, and I don’t mean spiritually or psychologically.

Q: What makes a comedian or humorist successful?

A: If you mean financially successful, that’s one thing. One word: Seinfeld. Ok – I’ll give him this: while trivial, his humor is common denominator; anyone can relate to it, and that’s important. Kathy Griffin has great timing (important element in comedy, which is different from humor, to be explained.) And, like Pryor, she transcends the nonsense she experiences and perceives in life, although she doesn’t deal with tragedy at the level of Pryor. She’s successful artistically and financially. Kathy does make fun of the celebs she admits to being obsessed with, but it works because her demeanor is self-effacing, and she makes fun of herself. Two things that I think make a comedian successful (by my definition) are content (taking negative things everyone can understand and making them bearable or at least interesting) and timing. But you can say the same thing about a dramatic actor; what makes something funny is very elusive.
To get technical, a joke typically consists of a set-up, joke body and punch line; that also doesn’t pinpoint what makes it funny. Possibly the best thing written about humor is an essay by the philosopher Henri Bergson. In his essay on laughter (you can google it) he gets as close as anyone has to defining what’s funny and ends by saying that just when you think you’ve found the answer, it evaporates like sea foam in the hand of a child playing by the shore.
About the difference between comedy and humor: they’re usually used interchangeably. I sometimes distinguish between them, with comedy as humor that’s performed, whether by amateurs or pros. Humorists usually write funny essays, books, etc. or deliver funny speeches.
Humor can also occur spontaneously in everyday life. There are people who are successful comedians and don’t know it. I was on a subway here in New York where I live, and the train was very crowded. Over the PA system, the conductor repeatedly scolded passengers who kept blocking the doors and not moving into the cars. A woman I’d never seen before started to laugh, and the next thing I knew we were laughing together at the announcements and joking. Instead of being stressed, this woman I’ll never see again and I had a great moment.

Q: You’ve worked a lot with AIDS patients; how did your training in the psychology of humor help you?

A: Psychological theories of humor didn’t help me much with anything. The basis for my dissertation experiment – don’t joke about the ingroup unless you’re a member – is something I’ve always known and practiced. Wish I could say the same for most comedians. Arrogant as it may sound, my own rule, “Don’t mock it unless you’ve tried it,” has informed my work. There are exceptions to the rule. Black comedians can make fun of whites because blacks have been persecuted historically. Same thing re Jews; Lenny Bruce made fun of the “goyim,” and it worked. Women make fun of men – same principle, but as we gain equality, it becomes less viable for us to mock men.
Getting back to AIDS: I worked as Psychology Supervisor on an inpatient unit back in the days when all AIDS was a death sentence; all my patients died. One of my favorite patients never lost his sense of humor. As he was dying, he had an oxygen mask that had a hose-like part descending from his nose. In a small voice, he called me to his bedside and whispered, “Do I look like an elephant?” We laughed. It would have been terrible and not at all funny if I had been the one to make the elephant joke to my patient. It helps me to be open to humor wherever I find it, while not violating the individuals I treat, which means that if a patient is humorless, so am I. Forcing humor on anyone is a violation, an intrusion.

Q: What do you think most people misunderstand about your profession?
Keeping in mind the many branches of psychology, I’m speaking to Clinical Psychology, which is mainly what I practice. Most people think that Clinical is all psychology. Even worse, psychology is confused with psychoanalysis. Psychologists, social workers, psychiatrists, psychiatric nurses and other mental health providers can be psychoanalysts. I was trained in a type of psychoanalysis more contemporary than the Freudian model, though it had many of the same intrinsic flaws. I also was trained in other types of psychotherapy and evaluation. Because my clinical training was outside grad school in various venues, I was exposed to several orientations. I mainly do cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) which can be too rigid, since it grew out of the behaviorist tradition in academic psychology. I think of myself as “CBT light.”
Many people think that psychologists just sit and listen, then say “Our time is up.” True of a lot of my colleagues. You could do that for free with a friend. Good psychotherapists talk with their clients and give them the tools to change their thoughts and behaviors, making themselves obsolete in their clients’ lives. Woody Allen has been pouring words into psychoanalysts’ ears forever and ended up married to his step-daughter.
More confusion: psychiatrist vs. psychologist. This confusion is built into the otherwise wonderfully written sitcom, Frasier. Dr. Frasier Crane was sometimes a Ph.D. (psychologist) and sometimes a psychiatrist (M.D.) Freud, by the way, was a psychiatrist; lay people don’t always know that. When people assume that because I’m “Dr. Hahner,” I’m a psychiatrist, I say “If only! – I’d be rich from writing scripts for tranquilizers.”

Q: How did your education help you as a performer?

In terms of process, or as it’s called in comedy, “delivery,” it doesn’t help at all – it hinders. I have to be careful about talking too much and using words no one would understand. I don’t mean to sound arrogant; it’s just a statement of fact. However, I get material from psychology. I do an audience improv where I tell the audience that my day gig is something that can put people off, and I ask them to guess what it is. A clever audience member offered “undertaker,” and I said “close, but no.” My critique of Freud’s theories of castration anxiety and penis envy always gets a laugh. It’s a streamlined (and one hopes more comedic) version of what I’ve taught my psychology students.

Q: How has humor evolved in the years you have been studying it?

A: Need to distinguish here between humor and comedy. Comedy has become more sophisticated; you see less broad comedy such as The Three Stooges. I never thought they were very funny; I think more people, adults anyway, these days would agree. On the other hand, greatness survives. Classic bits by Nichols & May, Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, etc. stand the test of time, or maybe you could say they were before their time. Samuel Clemens (AKA “Mark Twain”) was a humorist who is as funny today as he was in his own era. As for theories of humor, I think the field has evolved so that “superiority humor” is no longer considered the model for all humor. I’ll end pretty much where I started. It is said that Richard Pryor “revolutionized comedy.” I call what he did (and I try to do) “transcendent humor.” I like to think that this nutty world that is increasingly tragic is being increasingly transcended through comedy.

Please note; Eliza’s interviews are done by email. All answers are unedited and come right from the lovely fingertips of her subjects:)


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