No joke – male humour helps groups reach goals

Researchers have found robust humour has a role in helping men in support groups achieve their goals – but it has to be used carefully.

James Dimmock is a Professor of Health Psychology at James Cook University. He was part of an international team – led by The University of Western Australia’s Dr Timothy Budden – that questioned men involved in a weight loss support group on the role of humour in their progress.

“Humour appears to be an important aspect of health-promoting efforts for some men. A better understanding of the role humour plays in men’s health contexts may provide insight into the optimal design of health interventions for men,” said Professor Dimmock.

The scientists explored the role of ‘banter’ – humour that blurs the line between playfulness and aggression and that can feature teasing, ribbing and insults – in a men’s weight-loss program that leveraged competition to drive weight loss. The program, Man vs Fat soccer, was funded by the WA Health Promotion Foundation (Healthway).

“The aim was to use and encourage humour in a way that supports men’s ability to address sensitive topics such as weight gain,” said Professor Dimmock.

He said banter served several functions for men in the program studied, including allowing them to determine their social position, to feel good, develop camaraderie, experience respite, provide male inter-personal support in a counter-intuitive way, and ‘be themselves’.

“Men could use banter as a tool to develop resilience for themselves, but could also adapt their approach to use banter as a means of providing support for others,” said Professor Dimmock.

But he said banter could also cause trouble if not carefully managed.

“It sometimes runs up against the societal narratives of progressiveness and inclusiveness, and a ‘changing culture’. It can do harm if people position themselves as against certain characteristics, and used it simply as a tool to get under people’s skin,” said Professor Dimmock.

He said program designers should explicitly highlight the potential positive and negative effects of banter, and manage reactions to it by openly acknowledging that playful and well-meaning humour can at times look aggressive.

“An inclusive approach to men’s health intervention design should support rather than restrict the use of humour, but should also protect against misinterpretations, embarrassment, or withdrawal that may result from reactions to the more contentious uses of banter,” Professor Dimmock said.

He said positive forms of banter within these settings promotes adherence to the program by creating perceptions of social bonds, mutual support, and contributes to a ‘buzz’ or ‘excitement’ in the programme environment.

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