The Moderating Effect of Humour on Media Mediated Stereotype Threat

Bachelor Thesis, 2015

67 Pages, Grade: 1,1


Table of Contents


1. Theory
1.1. Stereotype threat
1.1.1. Mechanisms of stereotype threat
1.1.2. Media mediated stereotype threat
1.2. Sense of humour
1.2.1. Coping sense of humour
1.2.2. Perceived humour
1.2.3. Sexist humour
1.3. Coping stereotype threat with humour
1.4. Hypotheses

2. Preliminary study
2.1. Method
2.1.1. Participants
2.1.2. Material Measurement of situational humour Measurement of perceived sexism Measurement of familiarness Stimuli
2.1.3. Procedure
2.2. Results
2.3. Discussion

3. Main study
3.1. Method
3.1.1. Participants
3.1.2. Material Stereotype threat stimuli (Independent variable) Perceived Humour Scale (Moderator) Coping Sense of Humour Scale (Moderator) Performance test (Dependent variable)
3.1.3. Procedure
3.2. Results
3.2.1. Descriptive data analysis
3.2.2. Testing the hypotheses
3.3. Discussion


For centuries, being a woman was associated with low qualities and skills. Women have long been regarded as inferior to men. The 20th century brought society female suffrage, the prohibition of all discrimination against women and the possibility that women and men can achieve the same aims, personally and professionally. However, the stereotype of less capable women defeated to men in science still adheres. Comedians like the German Mario Barth fill whole stadiums with jokes about the inability of women to back into a parking space or to stop buying unnecessary gewgaw. Does the stereotype of inferior women mean something real and acceptable to those thousands of people; something they can even laugh at? Nevertheless, empirical studies show that women actually show poorer performance in cognitive and logistical tasks. Results of the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT College Board, 2010) indicate that women indeed show significantly lower achievement in mathematics and science. What are the reasons for this achievement gap? Are women actually, as presented by comedians like Mario Barth, naturally inferior to men? Benbow and Stanley (1982) traced women’s low representation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM domains) back to their inferior intelligence in these fields. Besides biological explanations of the effect, scientists who follow a more nurture side of the “nature-nurture-debate” try to explain it with the socio-cultural environment in which women grow up. Eccles, Jacobs and Harold (1990) proved that, irrespective of their talents, mothers encouraged their sons more to be successful in mathematics and science than their daughters. Both approaches implicate the assumption that women are truly less capable in the STEM domains than men are. In 1995, Steele and Aronson introduced the idea of a new theory into the academic literature that would later implicate that the reason for the achievement gap can not only be found in biological or socio-cultural explanations, but also in the situation itself: They saw harassment by stereotypes as a chief cause, calling it stereotype threat. But if situational criteria are the reason, there must be ways to mitigate these impacts. Studies discovered the important role of humour to cope with those circumstances (e.g., Ford, Ferguson, Brooks, & Hagadone, 2004). The current study aims to be a contribution to the reduction of the achievement gap by examining the underlying mechanisms of stereotype threat with focus on humour as a way to cope with displeasing effects. Thereby, humour is regarded as state and likewise as trait.

In this work the term gender as well as the terms male and female are viewed as a result of biological processes and learning. They are used like stereotype threat researchers did before, in the way of the traditional categories “man” and “woman”.

1. Theory

1.1. Stereotype threat

In their book Stereotype threat: Theory, Process and Application (2011), Inzlicht and Schmader defined the construct “as a situational predicament where individuals are at a risk, by dint of their actions or behaviours, of confirming negative stereotypes about their group” (Inzlicht, & Schmader, 2011, p. 5). Steele (1997; 1997) as well as Steele and Aronson (1995) showed that the confrontation with a negative stereotype can lower the performance of a person belonging to the stigmatised group. First, stereotype threat was used to describe the lower college scores of African-American students compared to Caucasian-American students. Other empirical studies showed that the idea can also be transferred to low performances of women in mathematics and science (Brown, & Josephs, 1999; Spencer, Steele, & Quinn, 1999; Inzlicht, & Ben-Zeev, 2000; Quinn, & Spencer, 2001; Smith, & White, 2001), of people with low socio-economic status (Croizet, & Claire, 1998) and of women in a driving situation (Yeung, & von Hippel, 2008). Steele (1997) already suggested that stereotype threat can affect everybody. Social identity threat delineates the situation when people experience the social group which they belong to presented negatively. While the aim of every person is to have a positive percipience of their collective (Tajfel, & Turner, 1986), people who are confronted with a negative perception of their group undergo negative emotions (Walton, & Cohen, 2007). The relationship between both mentioned constructs is a topic of academic discussion. Sometimes social identity threat is seen as a superordinate concept to stereotype threat. Derks, Inzlicht and Kang (2008) assume that while stereotype threat generates concerns of people about themselves, social identity threat leads to concerns of individuals about the reputation of their groups. To make the relationship clear, Ellemers, Spears, and Doosje (2002) state three varying modes of social identity threats: First, individuals experience it as threatening when the dissimilarity between their own collective and another group gets reduced (Tamir, & Nadler, 2007; Turner, 1999). For example, they might feel less individual or less exclusive. Secondly, people could discover that the values of their group are less ethical than they had initially assumed (Wolh, & Branscombe, 2005). Thirdly, individuals realise that their collective is less capable as competing groups (Ellemers, Kortekaas, & Ouwerkerk, 1999). The last class could contain the case of stereotype threat.

Looking back on almost two decades of research in the field, Nguyen and Ryan (2008) conducted a meta-analysis on the subject. So far, they refer to 74 studies dealing with gender-based stereotypes, nine of them with more than 100 participants. Their results indicate that stereotype threat effects are reliable and larger when the provoking cues are rather explicit.

1.1.1. Mechanisms of stereotype threat

The typical consequence of stereotype threat is the worse performance of individuals in tasks that they are said to be bad at. Women who get confronted with the archetype of the inadequacy of female mathematic skills are more likely to perform deficient in a mathematic achievement test (Krendl, Richeson, Kelley, & Heatherton, 2008). Miyake et al. (2000) defined three distinct executive functions whose obstruction leads to the consequence of lower achievement: (1) The confrontation with a threatening stimulus blocks the capacity of the working memory. This manifests in a lack of updating. (2) Because of the strain resulting of stereotype threat, individuals are less able to switch goals in response to cues. Thus, a diminution of switching decreases the achievement of threatened individuals. (3) Individuals have to suppress the negative emotions due to the confrontation with the stereotype threat. That tends to result in an impairment of inhibition. In 2008, Schmader, John and Forbes adapted the pattern of Miyake et al. (2000) and published an integrated model with three interrelated factors: (1) stress arousal, (2) performance monitoring, which narrows attention, and (3) efforts to suppress negative thoughts and emotions. With this model, Schmader et al. (2008) explained the limitation in the utilization of the working memory with the negative emotions that are experienced after being confronted with a negative stereotype about oneself. These negative feelings are contradictory to the positive emotions an individual has about him- or herself. Subsequently, the emerging dissonance involves solicitudes and anxious thoughts. These worries are seen as the reason for the limited capacity of working memory while experiencing a negative stereotype about oneself. As a consequence, individuals try to control and regulate their performance. Their vigilance focuses on the task they are solving to avoid errors. Theses conscious considerations also reduce working memory capacity (Schmader et al., 2008). Inzlicht and Kang (2010) add that this increased vigilance leads to a decrease in discipline and concentration. They explain this with an impairment of a mental energy called ego depletion similarly to self-control. Several empirical studies conducted later also supported the importance of the three factors mentioned by Schmader et al. (2008). In a set of experiments, the role of the working memory for the consequences of stereotype threat was statistically supported (Beilock, Rydell, & McConnell, 2007; Rydell, McConnell, & Beilock, 2009; Rydell, Van Loo, & Boucher, 2014). Moreover, negative emotions themselves might provoke the loss in performance (Blascovich, Spencer, Quinn, & Steele, 2001; O'Brien, & Crandall, 2003; Scheepers, & Ellemers, 2005). The stress and anxiety that appear after getting confronted with a stereotype threat inducing stimulus lead to arousal that manifests in psychophysiological parameters: As shown by Townsend, Major, Gangi and Mendes (2011) women who find themselves in a sexist situation have a significantly higher blood cortisol than women in a relaxed environment. Cortisol is a stress hormone that is highly interrelated with threatening situations. Other studies found that the consequences of stereotype threat are linked to the activity of the ventral anterior cingulate cortex what is associated with feelings of emotional regulation and dissonance (Krendl et al., 2008). In their study, Krendl et al. (2008) could also show that women in mathematical achievement tests are much more likely to have an inactivated inferior prefrontal cortex, left inferior parietal cortex and bilateral angular gyrus after they were confronted with a sexist stimulus. These areas are related with mathematical skills and learning. But the achievement in a specific situation is not the only functioning that is affected by stereotype threat: In a set of studies, Rydell, Rydell, and Boucher (2010) could show that stereotype threat not only results in a performance loss but also in an impediment to learning. Appel, Kronberger and Aronson (2011) supported these findings. Different stimulus strengths can induce the salience of stereotype threat. Explicit sexist behavior can result as much in the consequences of stereotype threat (Logel et al., 2009) as very subtle sexual behaviour (Adams, Garcia, Purdie-Vaughns, & Steele, 2005). In their study, Adams et al. (2005) observed that stereotype threat also occurs when women only assume that men might be sexist even if they do not show any sexist behaviour. Even the salience of their sex can lead to a decrease in women’s mathematical ability (Rosenthal, & Crisp, 2006).

1.1.2. Media mediated stereotype threat

Doing research on stereotype threat for nearly twenty years, most studies took place in a laboratory, inducing stereotype threat by a sexist statement or item (Nguyen, & Ryan, 2008). While a great number of studies were able to prove the internal validity of the construct stereotype threat, the external validity is still doubted (Whaley, 1998). It is assumed that the results of those studies cannot be generalised to settings in the real world like a classroom or a college campus (Owens, & Massey, 2011). Only few studies exposed participants to media materials that provoke stereotype threat (e.g., Oswald, & Harley, 20002001; Davies, Spencer, Quinn, & Gerhardstein, 2002; Davies, Spencer, & Steele, 2005). Oswald and Harvey (2000-2001) conducted an achievement test with their participants. While awaiting the test, the participants were seated in a waiting room with a cartoon on the wall. It showed a woman struggling with a math problem while her male seatmate is solving it easily. Regarding the impact of the cartoon on performance, they found no main effect. Davies et al. (2002) instead showed their all-female participants either stereotypic or counterstereotypic commercials. The stimuli they used showed women who find their joy in using make-up or baking. Women who were exposed to these commercials declined significantly in their performance in a mathematical test while the all-male control group did not. Also Davies et al. (2005) used TV-commercials to provoke stereotype threat and measured men’s and women’s understanding of gender roles afterwards. The results were ambiguous: Women in the stereotypic-commercial condition showed less interest in a leader role but also more interest in a problem-solver role than women in the neural condition. So far, there is still less literature about real live stimuli provoking stereotype threat and the results of these researches are still indistinct (Owens, & Massey, 2011).

1.2. Sense of humour

However, the reactions to stereotype threat are not always strictly comparable.

Miscellaneous moderator variables alter the consequences of the threat. As shown by Johns, Schmader and Martens (2005), the effects of stereotype threat fade away when the stereotype is presented as incorrect. The inexistent validity of the stereotype cannot induce anxiety, so a performance drop does not occur. Furthermore, the achievement degradation depends on the strength of empathy with the group. Women who do not identify strongly with their gender are less likely to show a decrease in performance after getting confronted with the stereotype of women’s poor mathematical skills (Schmader, 2002). Ford et al. (2004) mention another moderator variable when they proved that the effects of stereotype threat diminish when individuals perceive straining stimuli as humorous. Humour is one of the most widely discussed and studied topics in psychology. But not only has this discipline tried to understand humour. Various other humanities subjects such as philosophy, linguistics and literature, but also the entertainment and advertising business attempt to approach the subject from different directions. To find a definition for this highly complex construct is not easy. Several theories come to the point that sense of humour is a way of looking at the environment from an angle of laughter, serenity and levity (Martin, 1996). To detect the dimensionality of humour, different taxonomies were developed. Sense of humour was divided into the way individuals respond with cheerfulness in a special situation (Martin, & Lefcourt, 1983) or how they experience and recognise humour (Svebak, 1996). The former resulted in the development of the Situational Humour Response Questionnaire (SHRQ). Another classification parts sense of humour on basis of a factor analysis into (1) creativity in being humorous und uses of humour in a social context, (2) uses of humour as a coping strategy, (3) recognition of people who are perceived as amusing, and (4) recognition of humour (Thorsan, & Powell, 1993).

1.2.1. Coping sense of humour

The intricate chaos of taxonomies about humour can be roughly divided into cognitive-perceptional, superiority and relief theories (Swani, Weinberger, & Gulas, 2013). The last category focuses on humour as a way to cope with stressful and negative emotion causing events. Humour can produce relief to those situations. For this particular case, Martin and Lefcourt (1983) developed the Coping Sense of Humour Scale (CSH) especially dealing with humour as a potential capacity to bypass the results of stressful experiences. Using this and other measurement devices, researchers have found a positive relationship between personal sense of humour and well-being (Martin, Puhlik-Doris, Larsen, Gray, & Weir, 2002). Otherwise, sense of humour is negatively interrelated with the susceptibility to depression (Ando, Claridge, & Clark, 2014) or mood affective disorders (Lefcourt, & Martin, 1986) and self-reported state anxiety (Yovetich, Dale, & Hudak, 1990). As a cognitive mechanism for this relief effect of humour, it is believed that from the outset individuals perceive stressful situations a lot less arduous if they have a high sense of humour. Martin and Lefcourt (1983) could, indeed, demonstrate this theory in an empirical study. Before a test, participants who score high in coping sense of humour are more likely to show less anxiety related to the exam than those who score low on the CSH. But the effect of humour as a coping strategy is not only reflected in an individual’s perception, but also in physiological measurements. Lefcourt, Davidson, Prkachin and Mills (1997) confronted women in an experiment with stress provoking stimuli and observed that their systolic blood pressure, and with it their perceived stress, was lower when they had a high CSH score.

1.2.2. Perceived humour

Sense of humour as a trait must be distinguished from the state perceived humour.1 While the former is more a holistic look at life from a bright perspective, the latter refers to a specific situation were feelings of laughter and blithesomeness are experienced (Ford et al., 2004). Perceiving humour as a response on a pleasant and amusing stimulus is correlated with extraversion (r = between .52 to .36), and less with psychoticism (r = .26) (Ruch, & Deckers, 1993). Situational humour shows itself physically in a higher likeliness to activate the smile muscle and boosts the heart rate (Danzer, Dale, & Klions, 1990). Like sense of humour prevent individuals of the negative effects of stress, also the exposure to humorous stimuli can decrease those aftermaths (e.g., Cann, Calhoun & Nance, 2000; Danzer et al., 1990; Newman, & Stone, 1996; Yovetich et al., 1990). Cann et al. (2000) presented a humorous videotape to college students before watching another video that caused more negative emotions. A control group watched a non-humorous tape before undergoing the negative emotion causing stimulus. The results showed a significant effect in the treatment group that priming with a humorous video decreased moods of depression and anxiety. Danzer et al. (1990) induced depression in their study and found that only the exposure to humorous videotapes lowered this emotion to a pre-experimental baseline.

Exploring the impact of perceived humour on the effects of stereotype threat is a rather new field of research. Ford et al. (2004) emphasise in their study that consequentially to such a research new actions can be recommended for those who experience the confrontation of stereotypes in their everyday life:

Because exposure to humorous material facilitates coping with anticipated events in general, it is possible that it could help members of stereotyped groups to cope with the stress imposed by stereotype-threat situations. [...] such an intervention might particularly benefit those low in coping sense of humour-those otherwise most vulnerable to performance impairment due to stereotype threat. (Ford et al., 2004)

1.2.3. Sexist humour

Sexist humour commonly refers to jokes that are meant to be entertaining and amusing, but portray one sex, usually the female, as inferior and lower in performance (Woodzicka, & Ford, 2010). This form of humour objectifies, stereotypes, victimises and degrades an individual due to his or her gender (LaFrance, & Woodzicka, 1998). Women are not only more often the target of derision (Cantor, & Zillmann, 1973), but also a view on media and television reveals that it also seems to be rather well to demean women. Comedians like Mario Barth set repeatedly new audience records with their shows that represent women as inferior to men. Woodzicka and Ford (2010) emphasise that the amount of appreciation a person perceives for sexist humour depends on how much he or she is willing to excuse or overlook the sexist statement. Nelson (2006) underlines that there is a lack of research in the question how women react to this kind of humour. Women who are exposed to sexist jokes are more likely to feel angry, surprised and disgusted (LaFrance, & Woodzicka, 1998). Also nonverbal reactions were measured and tested this hypothesis due to the fact that women rolled more with their eyes or covered their mouth with their hands. LaFrance and Woodzicka (1998) found evidence for a moderator on this effect: The more women were about to identify with their gender the more likely they were to perceive negative emotions.

Even if such a thing is easily dismissed as a joke, the consequences are severe. For women, sexist humour creates a hostile environment at work (e.g., Fitzgerald, Swam, & Fischer, 1995; Gutek, & Kass, 1993) and enhance the willingness of men to discriminate women (Ford, & Ferguson, 2004). Additionally, this form of humour has a negative effect on the solidarity between co-workers (Duncan, 1982). Brunner, and Costello (2002) emphasises that sexist humour is used by men to preserve patriarchal structures in organizations and makes leading positions inaccessible to women. Therefore, they ask: “To laugh or not to laugh. That seems to be the question?” (Brunner, & Costello, 2002).

1.3. Coping stereotype threat with humour

In their 2004 study, Ford et al. identified coping sense of humour as a moderator of the effects of stereotype threat. Participants who scored high in coping sense of humour were less affected by the performance-declining effects of stereotype threat. The analysis not only found evidence for this moderator but also that state anxiety is mediating the relationship between coping sense of humour and the test results. In the conclusion of the study Ford et al. (2004) noted that not only humour as a trait could moderate the effect of stereotype threat but also situational humour. While the connection of humour and stereotype threat is an accordingly new field of research, the coping effect of state humour in stressful situations was already examined in different studies (e.g., Yovetich et al., 1990; Cann et al., 2000). Yovetich et al. (1990) presented humorous video sequences to a treatment while they were awaiting electric shocks. They felt less anxious in comparison to the untreated group who did not see any comedic videos. Interestingly, the effect was larger on participants who scored low in sense of humour. Cann et al. (2000) found that situational humour has a preventive function while awaiting a stressful event. Referring to these studies Ford, Ford, Boxer and Armstrong (2012) did a study confirming their hypothesis that situational humour before undergoing a difficult mathematic test can enhance the test performance. Participants who saw a cartoon initially were more likely to solve the task well than the participants who were in the untreated group.

While humour which is experienced as humorous can help reducing anxiety, sexist humour has more negative effects on the affect. In a framework Woodzicka and Ford (2010) suggest that sexist humour lowers women’s work performance and is negatively related to their well-being. So it can be assumed that sexist humour also lowers an affected person’s performance in an achievement situation.

1.4. Hypotheses

According to the study of Ford et al. (2004) humour prevents people from the consequences of stereotype threat. While they focused on humour as a personality trait, the current study suggests that situational humour also moderates the effect of stereotype threat. First, the presumption is established that women who are confronted with a stereotype threat- causing stimulus decline significantly more in their achievement than women who are confronted with a non-stereotype threat-causing stimulus. Secondly, it is suspected that coping sense of humour is a moderator to the effect of stereotype threat, like assumed by Ford et al. (2004). Thirdly, it is supposed that women who experience a stereotype threatcausing stimulus as humorous show a significantly better performance in an achievement test than women who experience a stereotype threat-causing stimulus as non-humorous.


1 Due to different nomenclature in literature, the present study uses perceived humour and situational humour as synonyms of the same construct.

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The Moderating Effect of Humour on Media Mediated Stereotype Threat
University of Koblenz-Landau  (Kommunikations- und Medienpsychologie)
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moderating, effect, humour, media, mediated, stereotype, threat
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Markus Volkmar (Author), 2015, The Moderating Effect of Humour on Media Mediated Stereotype Threat, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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