Academic Minute Podcast

Best-Of 2023 Week: David Shoemaker, Cornell University – Why Psychopaths Have Bad Senses of Humor

On Cornell University Week: The lack of a sense of humor could mean bad things.

David Shoemaker, professor and interim chair of the Sage School of Philosophy, explores why.

David Shoemaker is a Professor and Interim Chair of the Sage School of Philosophy, Cornell University. His research focuses on humor and morality, agency and responsibility, and personal identity and ethics. He has published two monographs, over 60 peer-reviewed articles, and eight edited volumes. He is an associate editor of the journal Ethics, and was the co-founder and longstanding co-editor of the ethics blog PEA Soup.

Why Psychopaths Have Bad Senses of Humor

To have a good sense of humor is to be amused by the things that are funny and to be unamused by the things that aren’t. If so, then psychopaths have terrible senses of humor. They typically find other people’s pain and suffering hilarious, and their favored type of humor consists in ridicule and put-downs.

Now, someone’s slip-and-fall can be funny, as long as their bruises are limited to their egos. And some mockery can be funny if it cleverly stings a deserving target. But if a child cracks her head open on the ice, or if some meanspirited bit of ridicule causes serious psychological trauma, well, the humor’s gone. And yet psychopaths continue to find these misfortunes amusing.

There are also plenty of funny things they don’t recognize as such. For example, they don’t engage in or understand self-deprecating humor, as it makes no sense to them to admit imperfections. But self-deprecation is actually a healthy coping strategy for dealing with life’s curveballs, a style of humor which generates sympathy from and bonding with others, and it’s positively correlated with well-being.

The source of their flawed senses of humor is found in psychopaths’ impairments in empathy. They can’t appreciate how nasty it might feel for others to crack their heads open or be mercilessly ridiculed. Their amusement thus persists in the face of stronger moral reasons for concern or sympathy instead. This means their problems with empathy impair them twice over: In being too amused by misfortune, and not concerned enough about the actual human suffering at stake, not only do they have poor senses of humor, they also have poor senses of morality. And this yields a surprising and important conclusion: insofar as both sensibilities are grounded in empathy, to have a good sense of humor actually requires having a good sense of morality, and vice versa.

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