‘That's not funny!’: Standing up against disparaging humor

Emma F. Thomas, Craig McGarty, Russell Spears, Andrew G. Livingstone, Michael J. Platow, Girish Lala, Kenneth Mavor

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Citations (Scopus)


The current article addresses bystander action to confront disparaging humor as a form of moral courage. We ask: When is disparaging humor seen as harmless fun or as a pernicious form of prejudice? What are the social and psychological processes through which bystanders confront, evade, or collaborate in disparaging humor? Three experiments (Ns = 95, 213, 220), involving a novel paradigm (‘the shared media paradigm’) test the role of bystander emotional responses (anger/amusement) in shaping action to confront disparagement humor, through emotion-based social influence. Study 1 demonstrates that bystander action to confront disparagement humor as prejudice is shaped by the angry (but not amused) responses of co-present others. Study 2 considers a moderator of the influence process: the role of one's own emotional reaction to disparagement humor (angry/amused). Bystander confrontation was more intense when one's own angry reaction was validated by that of other bystanders but there was otherwise mixed evidence that the two interacted to promote collaboration/confrontation. Study 3 tests the claim that disparagement humor is especially challenging to confront because humor disarms opposition. Intergroup commentary was seen as more amusing and confrontation was more strongly resisted when humor was used (vs. a non-humorous control remark). Overall, the results show that the reactions of bystanders play an important role in shaping what is (or is not) perceived to be prejudice. Courageous action to confront the disparagement of members of minority groups is enabled by the emotional signals of others who are co-present.

Original languageEnglish
Article number103901
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Experimental Social Psychology
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2020


  • Bystander action
  • Collective action
  • Confrontation
  • Disparagement humor
  • Emotion norms
  • Prejudice
  • Social appraisal
  • Social influence


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