What’s So Funny About Decision-Making?
by Linda Henman, PhD
In 1974, Mel Brooks directed the blockbuster comedy, Young Frankenstein. In the movie, Dr. Frederick Frankenstein learns he has inherited his infamous grandfather’s estate in Transylvania, along with his manuals and lab notes. After initially resisting any connection to his grandfather, Frederick becomes fascinated by the idea of creating his own monster after he discovers his grandfather’s book, How I Did It. As Frederick discovered, understanding a researcher’s conclusions often starts by knowing how he or she did it. Here’s how I discovered the importance of humor in decision-making.
I first studied decision-making while working on my PhD in 1994. I conducted long-term original research on138 American POWs (including John McCain) who had survived five or more years of brutal imprisonment. The study, under the direction of the U. S. Navy, uncovered the pivotal decisions the POWs made to stay resilient—decisions about their beliefs, identity, and life’s purpose. I didn’t expect to discover that humor had guided these decisions, but that’s what happened, and these research findings have guided my work with executives ever since.
Before I began my work with the POWs, I had learned that most communication theorists and researchers consider the appropriate use of humor an aspect of communication competence. Nonetheless, most people most of the time cannot or will not produce humorous messages. Most people usually function as receivers rather than as sources of humor. We appreciate humor as a positive force in our lives, so why don’t more of us rely on it more consistently?
Since personality traits and behavioral repertoires differentiate high and low humor- oriented people, we know not everyone has the communication skills, personality traits, or cognitive abilities to create humor. Researchers have found links between a sense of humor and personality traits such as extroversion, lower anxiety levels, internal locus of control, and independence. They have also found a positive relationship between humor and expressiveness, interaction management, and overall impression management.
These descriptions mirror the portrayals researchers offered in the classic aviator personality analyses of the 60s and 70s. These studies found the aviator to be a dominant individual who relates well socially, seeks new situations, and sets high standards—a person who is responsive to the environment, spontaneous, and free of psychopathology. Such a person would, according to the findings of the humor theorists, be a person who would probably enjoy both the reception of humor and the generation of it.
Therefore, we can infer the reason more people do not effectively produce humorous messages: Not everyone has the predisposition nor the communicative proficiency to generate funny thoughts—much less humorous messages. The VPOWs did have these traits, however. The personality traits of this group, coupled with their training and maturity, allowed this group to utilize humor as a copying behavior more than other groups in captivity had been able do.
I found countless examples of the use of humor both in the literature by and about the POWs and in the stories they told me. My favorite involved an exceptionally clever POW, Gerald Venanzi. Many written accounts exist concerning “The Jerry Venanzi Motorcycle.” An interview with one of Venanzi’s roommates offered an important side to the story. The roommate reported that one day Venanzi, enjoying a moment outside his cell, noticed some of the other prisoners, tied up and suffering. Venanzi felt helpless, unable to do anything to help his cohorts, helpless except for his ability to create humor. He began to ride an imaginary motorcycle around the complex. The performance, with the supporting antics, had the desired effect among the men. They laughed.
Venanzi’s convincing “shows” caused the captors to question his state of mind, so initially they did nothing to stop him. Whenever the captors allowed him outside, Venanzi rode the motorcycle, complete with the appropriate sound effects. He even staged an occasional spill and limped and whined in reaction to it. The motorcycle riding became a source of laughter for the POWs, but the captors allowed him to continue for a period of time anyway.
Also, while in solitary, Venanzi created an imaginary companion, a chimpanzee he named Barney Google. The chimpanzee often accompanied Venanzi to interrogations and served as his voice for insults and criticisms. Frequently Venanzi addressed comments to the imaginary companion and reacted to Barney’s retorts. On occasion, the guards asked what the chimpanzee had said. One guard even offered the animal tea, an offer that Venanzi declined on behalf of Barney, explaining that he didn’t like tea. Venanzi’s ability to mock the guards and to draw them into the ruse served as fodder for many humorous stories among the POWs.
After a period of time, the Vietnamese commander told Venanzi he would have to abandon the motorcycle, explaining that since the other prisoners did not own motorcycles, allowing him to own one hardly seemed fair. Later, when the captors assigned Venanzi roommates, the commander further ordered that they release the chimpanzee since the dirty animal might offend the new cellmates. Venanzi’s ability to inject humor and the subsequent humorous stories the POWs told throughout the prison system allowed him and his fellow prisoners a temporary mental escape from the prison walls.
To insure accuracy in my research, I sent a transcript of the story of the imaginary monkey to Colonel Venanzi for his approval. He wrote back that he found the work generally factual, but added one comment: “One point does stand out, and I do hope you can correct it before it goes finally into the history books. Barney is a chimpanzee, not a monkey. In fact, he used to get very upset if he was called a monkey. I do hope this can be corrected (for Barney’s sake, of course).” When I read the letter, I too laughed, amazed at Venanzi’s ability to continue to create mirth through the decades.
I completed my work for the navy in 1998, but that didn’t end my fascination with humor. In the ensuing years, as I worked as a consultant, I have witnessed countless examples of humor diffusing conflict, building rapport, uniting people, and fostering creative decisions. That’s why I devoted a chapter in my newest book, Tough Calls, to a better understanding of how humor works. I called it “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Bottom Line.”
The VPOW accounts indicate these men formed a system that defined and encouraged humor among the group’s members. These men relied on humor not in spite of the crisis but because of it. Control is central to individuals’ health, their personal benefits, and in the case of the Vietnam POWs, their actual survival. Even if they weren’t aware of how they were using humor to help them with their decision-making, that’s what they did. From them, I discovered why the rest of us should learn from their hard-earned lessons.
Dr. Linda Henman, The Decision Catalyst ®, is the author of six books and the founder of the Henman Performance Group, a leadership consulting firm located in St. Louis, MO. Linda helps C-suite leaders make decisions that they must get right and can’t afford to get wrong. In more than 35 years, none of her projects has failed. Some of her clients include leaders in organizations like Avon, Emerson, Estee Lauder, Kraft, and Tyson. She can be reached at www.henmanperformancegroup.com.