The Usefulness of “Dark Humor”
Examples Emphasizing
Law Enforcement
In the order of contribution amount
Erika L. Liljedahl, Psy.D.
Erin Conway, BA
Jessica Scharf, BA
Leroy Burgess, BA
• Personal communications with police officers
Learning Objectives
Consumers will
• Learn about the use of humor police culture
• Learn about how humor affects the body
• Apply this learned knowledge to developing
appropriate and creative therapeutic
interventions to assist with decreasing mood
symptoms such as depression, anxiety and fear
1. Police Culture
2. Dark Humor in the Police Culture
3. Neuropsychology and Humor
4. Intervention and Prevention of
Medical and Mental Illness
• Information presented in this talk is a
combination of research, communications with
police, and personal experiences
• There will be information about police culture in
this presentation that may be uncomfortable to
hear. It is included to provide a realistic view of
police culture. Editing the examples of dark
humor would sanitize the information and
therefore not be an accurate reflection of the
• This talk focuses on American police culture.
Ice Breaker from “The Police Daily: The
Lighter Side of Law Enforcement”
The Job
• To understand police culture, one should better
understand the police experience.
• I challenge the audience to mentally put
themselves into the shoes of a police officer.
• If you have a reaction to any of the material
presented, bring your thoughts back to how it
must be to be the police. Imagine how it must
feel to not know if you will go home after work.
Some examples of what police see
• Death and Homicides
▫ elderly, shot, murdered, dismemberment, injuries
from traffic collisions
• Violence
▫ gang, domestic, animals
• Mental Illness
▫ Psychoses, suicidal attempts
• Drugs
▫ Behavioral and emotional dysinhibition
Specific examples of what police see
• Dead infant who died for being placed next to a
radiator or a baby “chopped to pieces” (Fletcher, p.43)
• “Floaters” from dead body engorged with water
in bathtub or river
• Finding a fellow police officer dead (e.g.,
committed suicide by hanging)
• Man crushed by 18,500 lbs of aluminum
• Homeless man punctured by a tree branch, in
his dirty clothing with fecal matter and urine
(Vivona, 2012)
Quote about suicidal driver
• A police officer talked with a driver for 45
minutes and thought that the threat of suicide
subsided. After the person still shot himself in
the head, the officer thought to himself…
“From time to time I still question whether I could
have said something or done something
differently to prevent the end result.”
(Fletcher, p.43)
Examples of Other Stressors
• Organizational Culture:
▫ External: Lack of support from government (e.g., not
getting ink cartridges for printers)
▫ Internal: Interdepartmental politics (e.g., animosity of
those officers benefitting from having connections)
• Lack of support from the public and media. Police
culture has a negative connotation
• Family not understanding the daily grind, social
isolation from family, high divorce rate
• Physical & other emotional stressors
Police Culture
• Danger promotes brotherhood
• “Us versus them” attitude
▫ Not just criminals, but defense and prosecuting
attorneys & court system
▫ Patrols versus lieutenants (especially the ones who
do not earn their positions)
(Woody, 2005; Paoline, 2003; Communications with police)
Police Culture
Similar to the military subculture
Survival is central
Culture of honor (of self and society)
This subculture is not static and is subject to
change because of the integration of ethnicities,
inclusion of women, gay, and transgender in the
force. But the brotherhood aspect of the culture
seems stable.
(Woody, 2005; Paoline, 2003; Communications with police)
Police Culture – Gender Differences
• Men are not as open to talk to female officers
• Men might treat female officers more like
“sisters” (protect) or see them as “princesses”
(those women that do not work hard)
• Female officers can be more willing than the
women in the general population talk about
“male-oriented” conversations
The Need for Humor
• “While most officers felt that their humor had
become much darker, and that this was simply a
way of dealing with events, and that was a
necessary component of being a cop… several
officers also acknowledged that ‘other people’
did not understand the function of this dark
Coughlin (2002)
Police & Humor
• Coughlin in his dissertation (2002) surveyed 96
police officers, 97% used gallows humor at work
▫ Gallows humor correlated with group cohesion
▫ Gallows humor also correlated with aggressive
humor toward others and self-depreciative humor
Police & Humor
• Aggressive humor is found to be caused by jobrelated stress
• Self-depreciative humor was found to be caused
by “emotional exhaustion”
“Negative humor has been found to be a
barometer of emotional exhaustion and
Avtgis & Taber (2006) as cited in Vivona (2012); Coughlin (2002)
Vivona (2012) wrote in his dissertation:
• “An inherent purposefulness was behind the
humor; officers used it to include and exclude
others from the group, various types of humor
made hierarchical statuses clear, and jokes were
made towards the wide variety of characters and
strange circumstances police encounter in their
daily routines.”
Police & Humor
• One officer said that “humor is used so you can
get through the day”
• Examples:
Super troopers: Repeat Game, Cat Game
Christmas deer
Poking fun at people and letting off steam on blogs
Police Limit comicstrip by Garey McKee
Dark Humor
Definition and Examples
Definitions of Dark or Gallows Humor
• The juxtaposition of morbid and farcical (ludicrous,
absurd) elements to give a disturbing effect (The Free Dictionary)
• A form of humor that regards human suffering as absurd
rather than pitiable, or that considers human existence
as ironic and pointless but somehow comic (Dictionary reference)
• An ability to perceive the ludicrous, the comical, and the
absurd in human life and the express these usually
without bitterness (Merriam-Webster)
All definitions are quoted
Gallows Humor
• PLEASE NOTE: Police do not view death as
• It is the creative way of perceiving the ludicrous
in life that leads to the police humor, not the
making fun of death.
When does gallows humor happen?
In Crisis situations or in situations when one is faced
with the incomprehensible as a mode to cope
cognitively and emotionally.
▫ First responders such as emergency room staff,
paramedics, police, fire, soldiers
▫ Stress breeds cynicism, which likely contributes to
gallows humor
(Woody, 2005)
• Freud considered humor as a defense
mechanism which is a way to cope with anxiety
or “deny the severity of the situation”
• Logan viewed that humor helped cope with
trauma. This helps police officers remain in
• Schiraldi believed that humor helps with
bonding, transforms suffering by decreasing
negative emotions, and improves physiological
immunity (Maxwell, 2003)
Why Dark Humor instead of
Light Humor?
• Gallows humor facilitated increased…
▫ Group cohesion
▫ Maintenance of perspective on problems, allowing
the police officers to see the ‘big picture’
▫ Distraction
Gallows Humor & Distraction
• In a study, subjects felt more negative emotions
after being exposed to more negative pictures
than mildly negative pictures. The humor helped
modulate negative emotions because of the
cognitive distraction (Strick et al, 2009).
• Distraction has also historically worked to
decrease pain in patients.
Dark Humor examples with the Police
• Vivona (2012) studied crime scene investigators.
CSIs see the worst.
Example of a DV call:
• “I answered a domestic one time; by the time I
got there, this woman was kneeling next to her
husband, holding his throat together with both
hands. She had slashed his throat from ear to
ear. Then she had a change of heart, I guess.”
(Fletcher, p.33)
Benefits of Humor
Neuropsychology: The effects of
humor on the brain and body
Brain and Body benefits
• Laughter increases sympathetic arousal (JamesLange theory). After the initial increase in blood
pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate, and skin
temperature there is muscle relaxation.
• Laughter has been found to decrease spinal
motor excitability which contributes to
• “Post-laughter relaxation can last up to 45
(Fry, 1992 as cited in Coughlin; Paskind et al as cited in Bennett and Lengacher, 2007)
How does sympathetic arousal differ
between laughter and stress?
• Both laughter and stress activate the
sympathetic nervous system. Laughter seems to
“buffer some of the negative effects of
sympathetic activation upon blood pressure.”
• There is some mechanism with laughter that is
positively correlated to improved body
functioning and relaxation.
(Bennett and Lengacher, 2007)
Brain and Body Effects
• EMG studies show increased muscle tension
during laughter, consistent with the above
▫ Example: Observations during EMG biofeedback
with TBI & neck pain patient: initially increased
muscle tension, then a rapid decrease in tension
Brain and Body benefits continued
• Norman Cousins in 1979 used humor to help
heal his own medical illness. He was familiar
with Hans Selye’s work on stress and
• Humor  positive emotions  positive chemical
changes  decreased pain  increased
(Coughlin, 2002)
A More Detailed Chain of events
• Stimulus
•  positive emotions/laughter
•  release of endorphins & enkephalins (pain
modulators), dopamine (reward, sympathetic
arousal), serotonin (mood, memory, learning)
•  increased good feelings & group cohesiveness
•  decreased pain
•  increased immunoglobulin A (antibody that
assists with getting rid of infections)
Laughter increased pain threshold
• In Dunbar et al (2011), results showed that after
laughing, pain thresholds were higher,
reinforcing the theory that endorphins are
released to help deal with pain and increase
one’s sense of well-being.
• Researchers studied in the lab and naturalistic
Brain and Body benefits
• Endorphin release:
▫ Dunbar et al. (2011) summarized research that
only Duchenne laughter (unforced, stimulus
induced) can “mitigate negative emotions and
• Endorphins are neurotransmitters that originate
in the pituitary gland and act as natural pain
killers, increase the immune response, and
increase one’s subjective feeling of euphoria or
Quote to ponder:
• “Laughter contrasts with many more
conventional aspects of non-verbal
communication in one important respect: it
seems to create euphoric states in the performer
similar to those experienced in communal
music-making, dancing, and some of the rituals
of religion.”
Dunbar et al., 2011
Contrary to this research…
• Kerkkänen, P., Kuiper, N.A. & Martin, R.A.,
(2004) found that there were no real benefits of
Meta-analysis limitations
• Study focused on 1-2 physical variables in cross
sectional designs (one point in time), not
• Relied upon self-reports, not objective evidence
• Studies did not associate use of humor and
“health-related habits” (smoking, drinking,
Study of Finnish Police Officers
• Addressed some limitations in previous slide
▫ Physiological measures were used (BP, serum
cholesterol and body mass, which deal with heart
▫ Addressed lifestyle and sense of humor
▫ Longitudinal design
▫ Added humor and sense of well-being at work
Kerkkänen et al., 2004
Results of Finnish study
• No support that humor improved physical
health, however sense of humor increased
health-related lifestyle behaviors
• Why?
Small study
Are there cultural variables?
Were to correct measures used?
Can this study results be generalized to American
police officers?
(Kerkkänen et al., 2004)
The Neuropsychology of Humor
Parts of the brain that are involved
with humor
Getting the joke
• Studies have shown that “setting up” the joke
involves the left hemisphere (LH) whereas
“getting” the joke involves the right hemisphere
• The vmPFC “appreciates” the joke
• Those with RH damage has more difficulty with
understanding humor. Individuals with right
frontal damage did not even show outward
expressions such as smiling or laughter
Reward center of brain
• Studies have found that watching humor (standup
comedians) or reading humor (comics) will increase
the activation (fMRI) in the brain regions that deal
with the reward system
▫ Midbrain / limbic region
Nucleus accumbens & ventral tegmental area
Caudate nucleus
Amygdala and hippocampus
▫ The orbitofrontal region
(Franklin & Adams, 2011; Coughlin, 2002; Mobbs et al, 2003; Carlson, 2011)
Reward Center
Reward center of brain
• Another study did not find activation in
these areas, but did show that the following
are important with humor:
▫ The postural temporal and inferior frontal regions
(language centers) are involved in humor detection or
getting the joke
▫ The insular cortex is involved with humor appreciation or
emotions after getting the joke, and may play a part in pain
modulation. (The insular cortex is deep in the Sylvian
fissure that separates the frontal-parietal lobes from the
(Moran et al, 2004; Mobbs et al, 2003;; The Free Dictionary)
Reward center of brain
Note these limitations:
• Overt laughter decreases when you are alone
• Suppression of laughter (while in an MRI
machine) is also a variable that could have
affected results
• Studies were small
(Moran et al, 2004; Mobbs et al, 2003)
More studies needed
• But still more studies are needed to better
understand the neurological aspects of humor.
• Researchers are looking at the difference
between verbal and nonverbal cues in humor
presentation, the type or genre of humor, gender
of presenter, mental state of presenter and
audience, and how one tells the joke (execution
of humor).
With Humor
Traditional Interventions
Individual therapy
Group therapy
Stress management
Relaxation training
Music therapy
Police Culture and Therapy
Please note that the police culture is unique
Be authentic
Build rapport – it is the relationship
Assess of critical incident stress debriefing,
depression management and other prominent
issues are more appropriate to address
• Separation from the job is essential. Some police
cannot leave the job.
Humor Therapy
• Within an individual session, one could
Comedy shows
B rated movies
A hobby that will contain much laughter
Being silly with family or friends
Being open to laughing at oneself
Looking for the absurdity in everyday life
Simply spend time with others rather than
isolative. Funny incidences come up naturally.
Humor Therapy
• CBT:
▫ Infuse humor into cognitive strategies to reduce
▫ Psychoeducation on the physiological benefits:
laughter reduces muscle tension, improves
immunity and cardiac fitness. View laughter as
▫ Work with the police officer and tell him or her
that it is ok to be silly instead of appearing in
control all of the time
Therapy with Police
What create therapeutic humor-infused
therapeutic approaches can you think of?
Ethics question: Are you breaching any ethical
codes if you encourage laughter on the job,
knowing that much of this laughter will derive
from everyday job-related incidents, possibly
including the morbid absurdity of individuals or
In other words…
•Is it unethical to suggest
using Dark humor to help
modulate negative
• Bennett, M.P. and Cecdile Lengacher (2007). Humor and Laughter May Influence
Health: III, Laughter and Health outcomes. Advanced Access Publication, 17.
• Bumbak, A.R. (2011). Dynamic Police Training. Boca Raton: CRC Press.
• Coughlin, J.L. (2002). Gallows Humor and Its Use Among Police Officers.
• Dunbar, R.M., Baron, R., Frangou, A., Pearce, E., van Leeuwen, E.J.C., Barra, V. &
van Vugt, M. (2001). Social Laughter is Correlated with an Elevated Pain Threshold.
Proceedings of the Royal Society Biological Sciences. Doi: 10.1098/rspb.2011.1373.
• Fletcher, C. (1990). What Cops Know. New York: Pocket Books.
• Franklin, R.G. and Adams, R.B. (2011). The Reward of a Good Joke: Neural
Correlates of viewing Dynamic Displays of Stand-up Comedy. Cognitive and Affective
Behavioral Neuroscience, 11, 508-515.
• Herrman, J.D. (1989). Sudden Death and the Police Officer. Issues in
Comprehensive Pediatric Nursing, 12, 327-332.
• Kerkkänen, P., Kuiper, N.A. & Martin, R.A. (2004). Sense of Humor, Physical Health,
and well-being at work: A Three-year Longitudinal Study of Finnish Police Officers.
Humor, 17-1/2, 21-35.
• Maxwell, W. (2003). Use of Gallows Humor and Dark Humor. WEMH, 5, 2, 93-98.
• Mobbs, D., Greicius, M.D., Abdel-Azim, E., Menon, V. and Allan L. Reiss (2003).
Humor Modulates the Mesolimbic Reward Centers. Neuron, 40, 1041-1048.
References continued
• Moran, J.M., Wig, G.S., Adams, R., Janta, P & Willam M. Kelly (2004). Neural
Correlates of Humor Detection and Appreciation. Neuroimage 21, 1055-1060.
• Paoline, E.A. (2003). Taking Stock: Toward a Richer Understanding of Police
Culture. Journal of Criminal Justice, 31, 199-214.
• Strick, M., Holland, R.W., can Baaren, R.B. and Ad van Knippenberg (2009). Finding
Comfort in a joke: Consolatory Effects of Humor Through Cognitive Distraction.
Emotion, 9, 4, 574-578.
• Vivona, B.D. (2012). Was that Levity or Livor Mortis? Crime Scene Investigators’
Perspectives on Humor and Work. Dissertation, Northern Illinois University.
• Woody, R.H. (2005). The Police Culture: Research Implications for Psychological
Services. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 36, 5, 525-529.
• Black Humor:
• Dictionary Reference:
• The Free Dictionary:
• The Journal of Neuroscience:
• The Police Daily:
Thank you for your attention. You
can download this presentation at: at
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If you have questions about this presentation, email me
at: [email protected]
Erika L. Liljedahl, Psy.D.

The Usefulness of *Dark Humor*