Jokes Can Make You Look More Competent at Work

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To make yourself seem like a more competent person around the office, you should do a little stand-up at the water cooler, according to a new study spotted by BPS Research Digest. But be sure to judge your audience well, because an ill-timed or misguided attempt at humor could land you in hot water.

In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology [PDF], researchers from the Wharton School and Harvard Business School discovered, through eight different experiments, that humor can signal confidence, whether the jokes land or not. And perceptions of confidence tend to make people see others as competent. But if the jokes were inappropriate (rather than neutral or just badly told), people found the joke-teller to be less competent, harming his or her status in the group.

First, researchers used a pool of 457 people to determine how appropriate people perceived nine different jokes to be. They then used these results in a series of subsequent experiments, which involved participants being serious or humorous in front of an audience, telling different jokes that were either funny or not funny, and manipulating audience laughter to see if people responded differently to comments they thought other people found funny.

“Successful joke tellers are viewed as higher in confidence, competence, and status, and are more likely to be nominated as group leaders,” they concluded. They found if the jokes were inappropriate (the "that's what she said" variety of joke did not fare well), however, or if no one laughed at them, it could decrease the status of the teller, making people see them as less competent.

The researchers’ advice is to proceed carefully in risky social situations. “It is possible that the contexts in which humor may be most beneficial are also those in which humor is fraught with risk," they write. “Ultimately, our prescriptive advice is to use humor with caution.”

[h/t BPS Research Digest]