Diversity Icebreaker humor project – guest post by Piotr Pluta

We have long since recognized the important role humour plays in the Diversity Icebreaker seminars. However, it is the first time that we took on a systematic and serious scientific approach to investigate how humour contributes to making people reflect, ask, listen and talk during our seminars.

This note gives an overview of our efforts so far in regard to the Diversity Icebreaker humour project and is intended to raise your curiosity as well as encourage you to participate in the project.

When I was introduced to the Diversity Icebreaker I was surprised and taken by how much humour was always there during the seminars. Having spent the last two years of my degree in psychology almost exclusively occupied with investigating humour, while working on my master thesis about its influence on persuasion – I was naturally very keen to investigate it.

So, when I joined Human Factors I brought in some systematic knowledge humour and we grounded our efforts in the field of humour psychology – a multi-paradigmatic branch of psychology, which very existence can be somewhat of a surprise. (Nonetheless, there is an International Society for Humor Studies that’s been publishing a referee based journal Humor since 1989, one or two complete academic textbooks, and some quite prominent figures in psychology who had dedicated much of their work to humour, e.g. Sigmund Freud, Arthur Koestler and Michael J. Apter; there’s also Norway’s very own Sven Svebak, who has been appointed with the humorprofessoren title!)

Why investigate humour in the Diversity Icebreaker?

The considerable amount of humour in the DI should be reason enough to believe that it plays an important, if not crucial, role in the seminars. In other words, since participants engage in laughter so often and so eagerly, it must be to a purpose and it must have some serious social functions. (However simpleminded this assumption might sound, a similar was one of the reasons why psychologists even took interest in humour in the first place!)

Second of all, it’s repeatable. No, not repetitive, although we sometimes do tell the same old jokes during our seminars… By ‘repeatable’ I mean that DI provides a consultant-proof scenario to follow, which always seems to create laughter independently of particular group’s characteristics and/or those of the consultant. When I first saw Bjørn running a session I thought that it was just him being such a funny guy. However, later I saw other consultants creating similar effects and I soon followed, conducting DI for the first time and creating just as much humour. (It doesn’t mean I don’t think Bjørn’s funny anymore.) Thanks to that, we can repeatedly observe the same patterns of humour and describe their effects and underlying mechanisms.

Third, and last but not least, a consultant may initiate and participate in the shared humour experience during the seminar, but it is the participants who generate most of humour and laughter. Therefore we can take a look at humour-in-makingin real social interactions – a setting most appropriate to study humour but rarely approachable.

Humour in the Diversity Icebreaker

What is humour?

Before I share what we assume about humour in the Diversity Icebreaker, let me briefly describe what we (psychologists) assume about humour.

It turns out that we assume quite a lot indeed, and the amount of results and theories building up is becoming even hard to navigate through. To begin with, the psychology of humour has produced a number of humour definitions. Below is one looking at it as a process:

Humour [is a] process [that] can be divided into four essential components: (1) a social context, (2) a cognitive-perceptual process, (3) an emotional response, and (4) the vocal-behavioural expression of laughter.[i]

Some of these elements correspond directly to particular branches of psychology (e.g. the social psychology is interested in how humour proceeds and what functions it has in social interactions and group processes; the cognitive psychology deals with how the mental processes like perception, thinking and memory are involved in humour; and the evolutionary psychologists research the markers of humour and laughter in primates to trace its historical development). However, the division itself is rather an arbitrary one and was drawn primarily to facilitate systematic studies of the phenomenon. It would be hard, and eventually impractical, to separate the cognitive mechanisms involved in humour processes from its content, which in turn is almost exclusively social in its nature.

The ubiquitous incongruity

The presently most dominant group of psychological theories related to humour, and especially to the mental processes behind it, is one encompassing the incongruity theories[ii]. According to these theories, all instances of humour involve some sort of incongruity, i.e. something somebody said or did, or an event that is in some sense odd, unexpected and out of ordinary.

To the right you see an example of an incongruity: who would expect such a big dog in such a humble disposition?

However, incongruity alone is not enough to elicit humour and laughter. Different researchers and theorists proposed a number of criteria in attempt to, on one hand, precisely discriminate between the incongruities that may lead to humour and those that don’t; and on the other to be universal enough to account for all types of humour.

Below is a summary of 3 points that reflect the main ideas regarding conditions for incongruity to be funny first introduced by Apter ii and later extended and adapted to the theory of cognitive schemata by Wyer & Collins[iii]:

1) Incongruity has to induce a re-interpretation of the situation as a less significant and more trivial;

2) This new interpretation cannot entirely replace the original one – both have to be processed simultaneously for a certain amount time;

3) A person has to be in a light mood, with positive emotions and no serious information-processing objectives regarding the message; usually, the person is in a playful frame of mind and already expecting humour.

Humour structure in the Diversity Icebreaker

In the Diversity Icebreaker, the incongruity is often first introduced by the consultant after he or she had given the participants instructions on how to fill out the questionnaire – thus inducing a script for a testing situation, which tends to be perceived as a serious activity. One of the moments when the unexpected occurs is when the consultant starts walking around and commenting on the results in a playful way, or by asking the participants who marked zero on ‘I liked maths better than languages at school’ to ask neighbours for help in calculating the total score (or doing any other thing that is out of ordinary and seemingly diminish importance of the situation, see picture to the left). It then leads to a re-interpretation of a testing situation to a less serious one than it had been perceived previously (1).

However, the reinterpretation of the seminar situation is only partial and temporary, the consultant and group can nevertheless easily shift back to the serious perspective, e.g. when discussing the learning points from the seminar (2).

The introduction of humour and positive emotions by the facilitator serves as an invitation for the participants to engage in it as well. The ‘fixed jokes’ make people laugh and make them expect to laugh more (3), openly permitting for humour in the seminar; hence making it easier also for the participants to induce it, e.g. during the group presentations.

Social functions of humour in DI

The previous caption focused primarily on the role of incongruity underlying all humour – also in one present in the Diversity Icebreaker seminars. In this section however, I go back to the first reason and question that made us and many other scientists investigate humour: Since there is so much of humour, what are its functions?

The literature on humour names a number of social and psychological functions humour probably serves. Below is a small set that we have initially identified in the Diversity Icebreaker seminar (note that this classification is, again, only arbitral and meant to help in systematic research; in reality, most of functions exist simultaneously or overlap):

  • Tension relief. Humour helps to release tensions during the Diversity Icebreaker seminars on many occasions: beginning with filling out the questionnaire phase, when it reduces the fear usually related with a testing situation; during the group presentations, when people submit/receive critique and are being evaluated. Humour can also steer attention away from the uneasiness the participants feel if they had not known each other before, by providing a cognitive distraction and replacing the negative emotions with positive.
  • Liking. Humour increases the feeling of liking and attraction between the participants. First of all, it is because we tend to like people that we perceive as similar to ourselves and being able to laugh together is one of the indicators of similarity. Second of all, we tend to like those who induce positive emotions in us, e.g. those who make us laugh.
  • Cohesion and identity building. The feeling of similarity is also important to bringing people together in a group. Furthermore, people often use humour to define the reality (sharing subjects to laugh at) and differentiate themselves from the others (e.g., inside jokes).
  • Trust. Humour is deemed as one of the constituent components in the trust model for the Diversity Icebreaker seminars created by Bjørn.
  • Breaking norms. Humour helps to break social norms and boundaries in an acceptable way, hence facilitating more-than-usual open communication, e.g. discussing stereotypes, essential for the seminars.

How does Red, Blue, and Green fit an elephant to a refrigerator? – DI and types of humour

A number of humour types or styles classifications have been made. One of the two most known is the 3WD (Witz-dimensionen) humour appreciation questionnaire measuring preferences for three types: incongruity-resolution humour (e.g. jokes where incongruity introduced by punch line can be resolved by referring to another part of the story), nonsense humour (incongruity is can’t be fully resolved, e.g. Monty Pythons, on a very bad day), and sexual humour (instances of humour containing an obvious sexual content).

Another one is Humour Styles Questionnaire, by Rod A. Martin and it seems to be more interesting from the Diversity Icebreaker project perspective, because it focuses not so much on different types of humorous content (or stimuli) but on the functions humour serves individuals during social interactions.

It distinguishes in four humour styles: affiliative (nonthreatening use of humour to enhance one’s relationships with others), self-enhancing (nonthreatening use of humour to enhance oneself), self-diminishing (use of humour to enhance relations with others at expense of oneself), and aggressive (use of humour at expense of others to enhance oneself).

We can look at the different styles of humour and the Diversity Icebreaker concept from two points of view.

First is to try to relate the three DI dimensions of Red, Blue and Green to either of the Humor Styles Questionnaire factors. An appropriate quantitative questionnaire study has not been conducted yet, but the results of the studies relating either the DI dimensions[iv] or the four humour styles[v] to the Big-5 personality traits, allow expecting that: Red will be positively correlated with the affiliative and self-enhancing, and negatively with the aggressive humour style; Blue negatively with the affiliative and self-enhancing, slightly positively with self-defeating; and that Green will positively related to the affiliative, self-enhancing and aggressive humour styles.

The second direction is to observe which of the styles are primarily present and/or induced in the seminar itself. Again, no systematic observation has been made, but one is led to believe that the affiliative and self-enhancing humour is predominant when the participants work in one-colour groups, and the in-group feelings are strong; as well as during the open discussion phase, when learning points are being shared and all participants are reunited again. On the other hand, a bland of the aggressive, self-enhancing and self-defeating humour seems to prevail during the group presentations stage.

Further work and an invitation to participate

Below are the specific next steps we want to take in the nearest future:

1) Write an article about the role of humour in HR trainings, with DI as an example and platform. Since this first article is intended to be based on qualitative data, it requires your help: we are in the process of putting together questions for a semi-structured interview directed to all the experienced (or semi-experienced) consultants using our concept, who want to help. Contact us to share your observations!

2) Include the results of this project in the DI train-the-trainer activities (Master Class in advanced use of the Diversity Icebreaker and half-day seminars).

3) Invite consultants and facilitators, as well as participants, to share funny stories and anecdotes related to the seminars in order let other use them as the safe and secure humour starters in the seminars.

4) Begin to gather data for a quantitative research relating Red, Blue, and Green with the different humour styles. This is intended as an online questionnaire study, with the results analysed using the Confirmatory Factor Analysis technique to test whether the data fit our predictions based on the previous studies.

Read more about Piotr in his profile on Human Factors AS website.


[i] Martin, R. A. (2007). The psychology of humor: an integrative approach. Burlington: Elsevier Academic Press.

[ii] Apter, M. J. (1982). The experience of motivation. London: Academic Press.

[iii] Wyer, R. S., & Collins, J. E. (1992). A Theory of Humor Elicitation. Psychological Review, 99(4), 663-688.

[iv] Ekelund, B. Z., & Langvik, E. (2008). Diversity Icebreaker: How to Manage Diversity Processes. Oslo: Human Factors Publishing.

[v] Martin, A. R., et al. (2003). Individual differences in uses of humor and their relation to psychological well-being: Development of the Humor Styles Questionnaire. Journal of Research in Personality(37), 48-75.

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