The Relationship Between Humor and Death Anxiety
Sponsored by Missouri Western State University Sponsored by a grant from the National Science Foundation DUE-97-51113
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The proper APA Style reference for this manuscript is:
RICE, H. J. (2000). The Relationship Between Humor and Death Anxiety. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 3. Available online at Retrieved April 25, 2017 .

The Relationship Between Humor and Death Anxiety
Missouri Western State University DEPARTMENT OF PSYCHOLOGY

Sponsored by: PHIL WANN (
The relationship between humor and death anxiety was examined. Fifty-three subjects completed pre and post-tests of humor and death anxiety. Before taking the post-test, subjects viewed a death-related video. It was predicted that subjects initially scoring high on humor and low on death anxiety would score higher on humor with scores of death anxiety either remaining constant or lowering. Subjects scoring low on humor and high on death anxiety were predicted to score even higher on death anxiety and lower on humor. Results showed no main effects for humor or death anxiety and there was no interaction between the two.

It has been said that two things in life are guaranteed - death and taxes. One could argue that taxes can be avoided. Death, on the other hand, is inevitable to us all. Most everyone deals with death on a fairly regular basis; whether it be through impersonal circumstances like watching the news, or going to see an action movie, or through personal circumstances like experiencing the death of a loved one. Facing the reality of death, particularly one`s own mortality, can create feelings of fear and anxiety. Because death is a guarantee in life, the way people acknowledge and cope with death and issues such as death anxiety open many avenues for psychological research . Death anxiety (thanatophobia) is defined as an abnormally great fear of death, with feelings of dread or apprehension arising when one thinks about the process of dying or what happens after death (Webster`s, 1980). Much research has been done pertaining to death anxiety. Relationships between death anxiety and variables such as age, sex, self-esteem, and personality traits are among the many areas of research. Age has been negatively correlated with death anxiety. According to Gesser, Wong and Reker (1988), death anxiety/fear of death and age have a curvilinear relationship, with death anxiety peaking during middle-age. The hypothesis behind this is that during the middle years of life, time comes to be perceived as "time-left-to live" rather than "time-since birth". Other factors negatively correlated with death anxiety include: self-actualization, sense of competence, self-esteem, meaning and purpose in life and life satisfaction (Gesser, Wong, & Reker, 1987-88). Women have been found to score higher on tests of death anxiety than men, although this could be because death anxiety scales measure expressed fear of death, and men may be less apt to express emotions such as fear(Buzzanga, Miller, Perne, Sander, & Davis, 1989). Other factors positively correlated with death anxiety include anxiety, external locus of control, and despair (Gesser, Wong, & Reker, 1987-88). Among the research related to death anxiety, Lester (1990) makes a distinction between fear of death and fear of dying as well as a distinction between fear of one`s own death or dying versus fear of others death or dying. Gershuny and Burrows (1990) note that it is also important to distinguish between different types of death (i.e. accident-related death versus illness-related death). They suggest that different types of coping patterns and defense mechanisms are used for different types of death. One coping pattern/defense mechanism referred to in the literature is humor. According to Freud, humor is the highest of defense mechanisms (Martin & Lefcourt, 1983). Humor has been viewed as a way of dealing with life`s problems - as a defense mechanism - a survival skill used to distance one`s self from a problem (Kuiper & Martin, 1993). Stevenson (1993) suggests that humor allows a person to confront fear thus, gaining a sense of control over that fear. In a sense, it would seem that humor can be used as a form of coping. Coping is a way to reduce, tolerate or rise above the effects of stressful circumstances. Martin (1989) breaks coping strategies down into three categories; appraisal-focused, emotion-focused, and problem-focused. Appraisal-focused coping strategies are used when one attempts to change one`s perceptions and/or cognition so that a situation that is first believed to be unbearable can be seen as bearable and controllable. Humor can be used to give a different perspective to a stressful, seemingly unbearable situation. Emotion-focused coping strategies attempt to reduce physiological stress. Humor can be used to release stress and has been shown to not only reduce psychological anxiety, but also physiological anxiety. It has been shown that humor reduces anxiety and stress by decreasing physical tension. Laughter actually reduces muscle-related pains, decreases respiration, heart rate and blood pressure, and also exercises muscles in the face, stomach, arms and legs (Hudak, Dale, Hudak, & DeGood, 1991). The immune system has also been shown to benefit from the use of humor and laughter (Martin, & Dobbin, 1988). Problem-focused coping strategies attempt to change the external situation to make it less stressful. Humor can be used in this manner by lightening the mood of a situation. Of particular interest to this study, is the previous research done regarding the relationship between death anxiety and humor. Studies done by Thorson and Powell (1993) and Mager and Cabe (1990) have shown a relationship between the two, however modest. In both studies, a negative correlation between death anxiety and humor was shown - as scores on humor scales increased, death anxiety decreased (and vice versa). With the relationship between anxiety and humor being drawn, the present study examines whether or not scores of death anxiety and humor are influenced by death-related stimuli. It was predicted that after being exposed to the death-related stimuli, subjects scoring high on humor scales and low on death anxiety scales would score even higher on humor scales and scores of death anxiety would remain constant (if not lower). It was also predicted that subjects scoring low on humor scales and high on death anxiety scales would score even lower on humor and higher on death anxiety than in the pre-test. The hypothesis behind these predictions is that if humor is a strategy used to cope with stress and anxiety, those who report using humor as a coping strategy will use that skill to maintain or even lower their death anxiety after being exposed to death-related stimuli, as opposed to those who do not report strong uses of humor as a coping strategy.


Subjects participating in this project were 53 undergraduates of Missouri Western State College. Of these 53 participants, 5 were male. The average age of participants was 26. All subjects received extra credit for their participation.

All subjects completed pre and post-tests of humor and death anxiety scales. The Collett-Lester Scale of Death Anxiety was used to assess fear of one`s own death, fear of one`s own dying, fear of others death, and fear of others dying (Lester, 1990). The Coping Humor Questionnaire was used to assess to what extent participants use humor as a coping strategy (Martin & Lefcourt, 1983). The Multidimensional Sense of Humor Scale developed by Thorson and Powell (1993) assesses several dimensions of humor, including appreciation of humor, humor production, playfulness, recognition of humor, ability to use humor to achieve social goals, as well as the ability to use humor as a coping strategy. The participants first completed the two humor questionnaires, followed by the death anxiety scale. After a period of five - seven days, participants viewed a death-related video clip. Immediately following the video clip, participants completed the death anxiety scale and the two humor questionnaires.

A 2X2 between subjects factorial ANOVA was calculated comparing the difference in humor scores following the viewing of the death-related video. The main effect for humor was not significant (F(1,49)= .30, n.s.), nor was the main effect for death anxiety (F(1,49)= .229, n.s.). The interaction was also not significant (F(1,49)= 1.40, n.s.). These results show that neither humor nor death anxiety had any significant effect on the difference in humor scores. A 2X2 between subjects factorial ANOVA was also calculated comparing the difference in death anxiety scores following the death-related video. There was no main effect for humor (F(1,49)= 1.28, n.s.), or for death anxiety (F(1,49)= .595, n.s.). There was also no interaction between the two (F(1,49)= .843, n.s.). Thus, neither humor nor death anxiety had any significant effect on the difference in death anxiety scores. Although no main effects or interactions were found, it is worth noting that of the four groups of subjects, 34 individuals (64%) fell into either the low humor, high death anxiety group, or into the high humor, low death anxiety group (see Figure 1). An interesting finding, though not significant, was that the only group to increase in death anxiety after viewing the death-related video was the group scoring high in both humor and death anxiety, while all other groups decreased (see Figure 2). Another interesting finding, though not significant, was that the high humor, low death anxiety group lowered in humor after viewing the video, while all other groups raised in humor (see Figure 3). This finding was completely opposite of what was predicted. One significant finding was a statistically significant correlation coefficient found between the Coping Humor Scale and the Multidimensional Sense of Humor Scale ( r = .75, p= .001, 2-tailed). Because the two scales were so highly correlated, the Coping Humor Scale was the only one used for statistical tests.

Before completely dismissing the hypothesis this project was based on, there are many factors to examine. The lack of main effects for humor or death anxiety and the lack of an interaction between them could be due to a number of reasons. First and foremost, this was not a true experimental design - there was no control group. There was also little (if any) control for confounding variables (i.e., general anxiety, mood state) within the groups examined. One possible explanation for there being no main effect for humor is participant reaction bias (a.k.a. subject bias). As mentioned in the results section, only The Coping Humor Scale was used in the statistical tests since it and the Multidimensional Sense of Humor scale were so highly correlated. Each of the tests were obviously scales of humor and although some subjects scored lower than others, there was little variability between or within subjects scores. Participant reaction bias could be the reason why. It is doubtful that even humorless people like to admit they are humorless. The fact that the majority of subjects did fall into either the low death anxiety, high humor category or the high death anxiety, low humor category is worth considering. As mentioned before, previous research has shown a negative correlation between death anxiety and humor and in the present study the majority of subjects did conform to those findings. If future research were to be done pertaining to this project`s hypothesis, it might benefit to look at only those individuals falling into the high/low categories. Although the present study had no statistically significant results, and previous studies showed only modest correlations between humor and death anxiety, future research possibly using more sensitive scales of death anxiety and/or humor, or controlling for confounding variables, may reveal that humor does indeed reduce death anxiety. As Thorson and Powell (1993) so concisely conclude from their own research of death anxiety and humor, "We all will certainly die, but at least some of us can laugh about it" (page 1366).

Buzzanga, Victoria L., Miller, Holly R., & Perne, Sharon E. (1989). The relationship between death anxiety and level of self-esteem: A reassessment. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 27, 6, 570-572. Gershuny, Beth S., & Burrows, David. (1990). The use of rationalization and denial to reduce accident-related and illness-related death anxiety. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 28, 2, 161-163. Gesser, Gina, Wong, Paul T.P., and Reker, Gary T. (1988). Death attitudes across the life-span: The development and validation of the Death Attitude Profile (DAP). Omega - The Journal of Death and Dying, 18, 2, 113-159. Hudak, Deborah A., Dale, J. Alexander, Hudak, Mary A., & DeGood, Douglas E. (1991). Effects of humorous stimuli and sense of humor on discomfort. Psychological Reports, 69, 3, part 1, 779-786. Kuiper, Nicholas A., & Martin, Rod A. (1993). Humor and self concept. International Journal of Humor Research, 6, 25, 251-270. Lester, David (1990). The Collett-Lester Fear of Death Scale: The original version and a reversion. Death Studies, 14, 451-468. Mager, Marlowe, & Cabe, Patrick A. (1990). Effect of death anxiety on perception of death-related humor. Psychological Reports, 66, 3, part 2, 1311-1314. Martin, Rod A. (1989). Humor and the Mastery of Living: Using Humor to Cope with the Daily Stresses of Growing Up. New York: Hayworth Press. Martin, R.A., & Dobbin, James P. (1988). Sense of humor, hassles and Immunoglobulin A: Evidence for a stress moderating effect of humor. International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, 18, 93-105. Martin, Rod A., & Lefcourt, Herbert M. (1983). Sense of humor as a moderator of the relation between stressors and moods. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45, 6, 1313-1324. McGhee, Paul E. (1996). Health, Healing and the Amuse System. Humor as Survival Training, Second Edition. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publication Company. Stevenson, Robert G. (1993). We laugh to keep from crying: Coping through humor. Loss, Grief and Care, 7, 1-2, 173-179. Thorson, James A. (1993). Relationship of death anxiety and sense of humor. Psychological Reports, 72, 3, part 2, 1364-1367. Thorson, James A., & Powell, F.C. (1993). Development and validation of a multidimensional sense of humor scale. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 49, 1, 13-23.

Submitted 3/28/00 12:59:15 PM
Last Edited 3/29/00 11:48:04 AM
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