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An experiment tested the hypothesis that exposure to humorous material prior to taking a difficult math test can inhibit the amount of anxiety associated with the test, and thus enhance performance. In keeping with our hypothesis, participants performed better on a math test after first being exposed to funny cartoons versus non-humorous poems or nothing at all. Mediation analyses suggest that state anxiety mediated the relationship between exposure to humorous cartoons and math performance. Participants who were first exposed to cartoons performed better on the math test because they felt less anxiety while taking the test.
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Humor 25–1 (2012), 59 – 74 0933–1719/12/0025–0059
DOI 10.1515/humor-2012-0004 © Walter de Gruyter
Effect of humor on state anxiety
and math performance
THOMAS E. FORD, BRIANNA L. FORD, CHRISTIE F. BOXER,
and JACOB ARMSTRONG
Abstract
An experiment tested the hypothesis that exposure to humorous material prior
to taking a difcult math test can inhibit the amount of anxiety associated with
the test, and thus enhance performance. In keeping with our hypothesis, par-
ticipants performed better on a math test after rst being exposed to funny
cartoons versus non-humorous poems or nothing at all. Mediation analyses
suggest that state anxiety mediated the relationship between exposure to hu-
morous cartoons and math performance. Participants who were rst exposed
to cartoons performed better on the math test because they felt less anxiety
while taking the test.
Keywords: anxiety, humor, math performance.
Laughter gives us distance. It allows us to step
back from an event, deal with it and then move
on.
—  Bob Newhart
As any college student will afrm, taking a test can be stressful experience. In
fact, apprehension associated with taking a test can at times feel overwhelm-
ing. By merely anticipating a difcult test, a student can experience intense
anxiety and their minds can be invaded by fearful thoughts of failure and self-
doubt that interfere with concentration.
In the present research, we consider the possibility that having a “good
laugh” prior to taking a test can actually inhibit anxiety and prevent perfor-
mance impairment. Specically, we tested the effect of exposure to humorous
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60 T. E. Ford et al.
stimuli on math test performance and anxiety associated with taking the test.
We propose that exposure to humor prior to taking a difcult test can inhibit
anxiety associated with the test and, consequently, enhance performance. We
present evidence that exposure to 10 humorous cartoons while anticipating
taking a math test reduced participants’ state anxiety and enhanced test perfor-
mance relative to exposure to 10 interesting but non-humorous poems or expo-
sure to nothing at all.
1. Anxietyandtestperformance
Psychological and educational research has consistently shown that anxiety is
negatively related to performance on (a) actual course examinations in class-
room settings (e.g., Carrier and Jewell 1966; Daniels and Hewitt 1978; Marso
1970; Mazzone et al. 2007) and (b) tests of cognitive-intellectual skills con-
trived in the laboratory (e.g., Arkin et al. 1982; Ashcraft 2002; Ashcraft and
Kirk 2001). Daniels and Hewitt (1978), for instance, found that college stu-
dents who scored high on Sarason and Gordon’s (1953) Test Anxiety Question-
naire performed worse on 4 regular course exams than students who were
categorized as having moderate or low test anxiety.
The deleterious effect of anxiety appears to be greater for more difcult
tests. Arkin et al. (1982) found that participants who were low in test anxiety
were better at solving anagrams than those who were high in test anxiety, but
only if the anagrams were difcult. The negative effect of test anxiety was at-
tenuated on an easy anagram test. Similarly, Daniels and Hewitt (1978) found
that the performance advantage of low anxiety students over high anixety stu-
dents was greater for difcult exam questions than it was for easy questions.
Anxiety affects performance by interfering with the cognitive processes in
working memory that are required to complete cognitive-intellectual skills
tests (e.g., Arkin et al. 1982; Ashcraft 2002; Ashcraft and Kirk 2001; Eysenck
and Calvo 1992). Eysenck and Calvo’s (1992) processing efciency theory
proposes that highly anxious people are more likely to experience an intrusion
of task-irrelevant thoughts and worry which can usurp the limited capacity
of working memory. Consistent with Eysenck and Calvo’s processing ef-
ciency theory, Arkin et al. (1982) found that, while solving difcult anagrams,
highly anxious participants experienced greater “cognitive interference” (task-
irrelevant thoughts such “I thought about how poorly I was doing.”) compared
to less anxious participants. Furthermore, Ashcraft and colleagues (Ashcraft
2002; Ashcraft and Kirk 2001) found that math anxiety undermines perfor-
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Effect of humor on state anxiety and math performance 61
mance on math tests by disrupting the processes involved in developing prob-
lem solving strategies to apply to math problems.
2. Humor,anxiety,andtestperformance
Exposure to humorous material facilitates coping with stressful events by re-
ducing state anxiety and negative affect in general (e.g., Berk 1998; 2000;
Cann et al. 2000; Isen et al. 1987; Newman and Stone 1996; Yovetich et al.
1990). Yovetich et al. (1990), for instance, found that participants who were
exposed to a humorous audiotape experienced less anxiety in a stressful
situation  —  waiting to receive electric shock  —  in comparison to participants
in a non-humorous audiotape condition or a “no tape” control condition.
Since exposure to humorous material reduces state anxiety, and lower levels
of state anxiety are associated with better performance on tests of cognitive-
intellectual skills, it follows that exposure to humorous stimuli could enhance
performance on such tests. However, studies on the effect of exposure to hu-
morous stimuli on test performance have produced inconsistent results. Some
studies have shown that exposure to humorous stimuli enhances performance
on actual course exams (Berk 2000; Friedman et al. 2002; Smith et al. 1971)
and on non-course related tasks that require creative problem solving (e.g, Isen
et al. 1987; Ziv 1976). Other studies have shown no such benets of exposure
to humorous stimuli (e.g., McMorris et al. 1985; Perlini et al. 1999).
In the rst systematic investigation of the effect of exposure to humorous
material on test performance, Smith, et al. (1971) gave students with varying
degrees of test anxiety either a humorous multiple choice midterm exam (one
third of the questions were designed to be humorous) or a non-humorous exam
(none of the questions were designed to be humorous). Smith et al. found that
highly anxious students performed better on the humorous exam than on the
non-humorous exam, and they performed equally as well on the humorous
exam as students who had either moderate or low levels of anxiety. Further-
more, highly anxious students performed worse on the non-humorous exam
those who had moderate or low levels of anxiety.
Smith et al.’s ndings suggest that humorous exams can benet students
who have high test anxiety. However, subsequent studies have failed to show
that humorous exams alleviate test anxiety or improve performance (e.g., Mc-
Morris et al. 1985; Perlini et al. 1999). Based on failures to replicate Smith
et al.’s ndings, Perlini et al. (1999) concluded, “. . . efforts to introduce humor
to examinations to alleviate test anxiety may be misdirected . . .” (p. 12).
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62 T. E. Ford et al.
The attempts to replicate Smith et al.’s (1971) ndings may have been
equivocal because of a shared methodological artifact. Each of the studies on
test performance in actual classroom settings has embedded humor into con-
tent of the test on which performance was measured. However, some research
suggests that humor alleviates state anxiety if it is presented prior to the
anxiety-evoking event while one anticipates the event. Cann et al. (2000) found
that exposure to a humorous videotape reduced the amount of anxiety experi-
enced in response to a stressful event only when it was presented prior to the
stressful event. Humor served a preventive function, inhibiting anxiety evoked
by the anticipated stressful event. Perhaps, then, exposure to humor prior to
taking a difcult test can enhance performance by inhibiting anxiety. Berk and
Nanda (2006) addressed this possibility. Specically, Berk and Nanda (2006)
gave graduate students in a biostatistics course tests over course material
that contained either (a) humorous instructions presented before the test, (b)
content-relevant humor in test questions, or (c) humorous test instructions and
humorous questions. Consistent with Cann et al. (2000), Berk and Nanda
(2006) found that only humorous instructions presented before the test posi-
tively affected performance. However, none of the humor manipulations af-
fected test anxiety, thus the study failed to support the hypothesis that anxiety
reduction mediates the effect of humor on test performance.
Berk and Nanda (2006) may not have provided a fair test of the mediating
role of anxiety. The graduate student participants showed very low levels of
test anxiety before taking the exams and before the induction of the humor
manipulation. They knew about the exams well in advance and had the oppor-
tunity to prepare for them. In addition, the course instructor employed sev-
eral strategies, unrelated to humor, that were designed to minimize test anxiety.
As Berk and Nanda suggested, the pre-manipulation levels of test anxiety were
so low that there was little room for humor interventions to reduce anxiety
further. Thus it remains possible that exposure to humor prior to taking a test
can enhance performance, in part, by inhibiting anxiety associated with the
test.
3. Thepresentstudy:Overviewandhypothesis
On the basis of the stress-reducing effect of humor, we hypothesized that expo-
sure to humorous material prior to taking a difcult math test can inhibit the
amount of state anxiety associated with the anticipated test, and thus enhance
performance. Accordingly, we told participants that they would take a difcult
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Effect of humor on state anxiety and math performance 63
math test. Before giving the test, however, we asked participants to read either
10 cartoons, 10 short poems or nothing at all. Participants then completed the
math test and a measure of state anxiety associated with taking the test. We
predicted that participants in the cartoon condition would report less test anxi-
ety and perform better on the math test than participants in either the poem
condition or the control condition.
4. Method
4.1. Participants
Thirty-three men and fty-one women enrolled in psychology and sociology
courses completed the experiment individually in exchange for extra credit.
We randomly assigned participants to 1 of 3 conditions with humor manipula-
tion (cartoon, poem, control) serving as the between-subjects variable.
4.2. Procedure
An experimenter greeted the participants as they arrived at the laboratory. The
experimenter informed participants that they would be invited to participate in
two separate but unrelated studies. The experimenter gave the participant an
overview of the two studies. In the cartoon and poems conditions, the experi-
menter explained that the participant would be asked to rst complete a car-
toon (poem) evaluation survey in which they would simply read and evaluate
10 cartoons (poems). The experimenter explained that upon completing the
cartoon (poem) evaluation survey, participants would be invited to complete
a difcult 20-question “word problem” test for the second study. Participants
in the control condition were simply invited to complete the word problem
test.
In the cartoon condition, participants read 10 cartoons from McPherson’s
2004 “Close to Home” calendar. In the poem condition, participants read 10
poems collected from the internet. In both conditions, participants rated
how funny and how interesting they perceived each cartoon or poem using
scales ranging from 1 (not at all) to 7 (extremely). Participants in all condi-
tions then completed the word problem test. The word problem test consisted
of 20 questions taken from the quantitative section of practice SAT tests.
Importantly, the questions were not simply numerical or algebraic problems.
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64 T. E. Ford et al.
Rather, they required the formulation of strategies to solve them. Also, be-
fore administering the test, the experimenter told all participants that their re-
sponses would be completely anonymous and condential. The experimenter
also encouraged participants to try to answer each question and to avoid
guessing.
After collecting the tests, the experimenter administered a “post-test ques-
tionnaire.” The post-test questionnaire contained 8 items designed to assess
state anxiety while taking the test. Seven items were adapted from Spielberger
et al.’s (1970) state anxiety scale. Participants rated the extent to which they
felt: anxious, comfortable, jittery, worried, at ease, nervous, and calm while
taking the test. The eighth item asked participants to rate how afraid they were
that they would perform poorly on the test. Responses to each item were made
on rating scales ranging from 1 (not at all) to 7 (very much). Cronbach’s alpha
for the eight-item measure (after reverse-scoring comfortable, calm, and at
ease) was .92. Therefore, we averaged responses to the eight items to form an
aggregate measure of state anxiety.
After participants had completed the post-test questionnaire, the experi-
menter probed the participants for suspicion of the true purpose of the study
and debriefed them. None of the participants indicated suspicion. Data from
participants were excluded from analyses if (a) procedural mistakes were made
by an experimenter, (b) participants did not take the math test seriously (i.e.,
simply circled responses without trying solve the problems), (c) participants
chose not to complete the math test, or (d) participants completed less than ve
out of twenty problems correctly. Overall, data were analyzed for 33 partici-
pants to the cartoon condition, 28 participants in the poem condition and 23
participants in the control condition.
5. Results
5.1. Humor manipulation check
We performed separate 2 (humor manipulation: cartoon, poem) × 2 (sex of
participant) ANOVAs on the mean ratings of how humorous participants per-
ceived the 10 cartoons or poems, and on ratings of how interesting they per-
ceived the cartoons or poems. As expected, analyses of the humor ratings re-
vealed a signicant main effect of the humor manipulation, F(1, 57) = 88.99,
p < .01. There were no other signicant effects. Overall, participants rated
the cartoons as funnier (M = 4.41, SD = 1.03) than the poems (M = 1.88, SD =
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Effect of humor on state anxiety and math performance 65
0.99), Cohen’s d = 2.50. In addition, there were no signicant effects in the
analysis of how interesting participants perceived the cartoons and poems.
Importantly, participants perceived the poems to be equally as interesting
(M = 4.17, SD = 0.92) as the cartoons (M = 4.07, SD = 0.97), F(1, 57) < 1.00.
5.2. Test performance
Following procedures described by McIntyre, Paulson, and Lord (2002), we
adjusted scores on the test for guessing. Because each question had 4 response
options, we subtracted one-fourth the number of incorrect answers from the
number of correct answers. We then subjected the adjusted score to a 3 (humor
manipulation) × 2 (sex of participant) ANOVA.
There was a signicant main effect of the humor manipulation, F(2, 78) = 4.46,
p < .05. In keeping with our hypothesis, planned comparisons revealed that
participants performed better on the math test in the cartoon condition (M =
11.93, SD = 4.48) than in the poem condition (M = 9.13, SD = 4.42), t(81) =
2.46, p < .05, Cohen’s d = .63 or in the control condition (M = 8.97, SD = 4.34),
t(81) = 2.47, p < .05, Cohen’s d = .67.
There was also a signicant main effect of sex of participant, F(1, 78) = 5.90,
p < .05. Overall, men performed better (M = 11.8, SD = 4.46) than women
(M = 9.14, SD = 4.45), Cohen’s d = .60. The interaction effect was not signi-
cant, F(2, 78) < 1.0.
5.3. State anxiety
We performed a 3 (humor manipulation) × 2 (sex of subject) ANOVA on the
eight-item aggregate measure of state anxiety.
Table 1. Analysis of Variance table for the adjusted performance score on the math test
Sum of Squares df Mean Squares F Sig.
Humor Manipulation 164.60 2 82.30 4.46 .015
Sex of Participant 108.90 1 108.90 5.90 .017
Humor manipulation *
Sex of Participant
16.85 2 8.43 0.456 .64
Residual 1440.42 78 18.47
Total 1749.48 83 21.08
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66 T. E. Ford et al.
As predicted, there was a signicant main effect of the humor manipulation,
F(2, 77) = 6.10, p < .01. Planned comparisons revealed that participants re-
ported experiencing less state anxiety while taking the math test in the cartoon
condition (M = 2.77, SD = 1.16) than in the poem condition (M = 3.71, SD =
1.39), t(80) = 3.03, p < .01, Cohen’s d = −.74 or in the control condition (M =
3.93, SD = 1.05), t(80) = 3.46, p < .01, Cohen’s d = −1.04. There were no other
signicant effects.
Figure 1. Mean number of test items answered correctly, adjusted for guessing, as a function of
the humor manipulation.
Table 2. Analysis of Variance table for the state anxiety scores
Sum of Squares df Mean Squares F Sig.
Humor Manipulation 18.09 2 9.046 6.095 .003
Sex of Participant 3.346 1 3.346 2.255 .137
Humor manipulation *
Sex of Participant
0.930 2 0.465 0.313 .73
Residual 114.286 77 1.484
Total 1749.48 83 21.08
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Effect of humor on state anxiety and math performance 67
5.4. Mediation analyses
We predicted that state anxiety would mediate the relationship between expo-
sure to humorous stimuli and test performance. To test this hypothesis, we
performed a path analysis following the procedures described by Baron and
Kenny (1986, see Figure 3).
As displayed in Figure 3, we rst regressed math performance on the humor
manipulation. This direct effect was signicant ( β = −.28, t = −2.61, p < .01).
We then regressed responses on the state anxiety measure on the humor ma-
nipulation ( β = .35, t = 2.90, p < .01). Finally, we regressed math performance
on both the humor manipulation and the state anxiety measure. The path from
state anxiety to math performance was signicant ( β = −.33, t = 3.0, p < .01).
The direct path from the humor manipulation to math performance, however,
was not signicant when state anxiety was included in the model ( β = −.15,
t = 1.34, p = .19). A Sobel test revealed that the decrease in the direct path from
the humor manipulation to math performance when state anxiety was included
in the model (from −.28 to −.15) was signicant, Z = −2.31, p < .05. Exposure
to humorous material enhanced performance on the math test, at least in part,
by mitigating state anxiety.
Figure 2. Mean state anxiety scores as a function of the humor manipulation.
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68 T. E. Ford et al.
6. Discussion
The results of our experiment support our hypothesis. Exposure to humorous
cartoons prior to taking a difcult math test enhanced performance on the test,
in part, by alleviating the amount of state anxiety participants felt while taking
the math test. It is possible that the humorous cartoons created a positive affec-
tive state that is incompatible with anxiety and thus inhibited anxiety enough
to prevent it from interfering with task-relevant processing (e.g., developing
problem-solving strategies). This interpretation is consistent with research
showing that exposure to humorous stimuli serves as a protective function
against the negative effects of anxiety associated with a stressful event (Cann
et al. 2000).
Although our analyses suggest that state anxiety mediated the relationship
between the humor manipulation and math performance, it is possible that ex-
posure to humorous cartoons enhanced math performance through other psy-
chological processes as well. Ziv (1976), for instance, suggested that when
solving problems that require cognitive-intellectual skill, one’s efforts are
Figure 3. The relation between the humor manipulation, state anxiety and math performance.
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Effect of humor on state anxiety and math performance 69
sometimes undermined by a tendency to be “practical, logical, and economi-
cal, so that judgment comes into play too quickly” (p. 320). In contrast, perfor-
mance on such tasks can be enhanced by “creative problem solving”  —  thinking
that accepts “crazy” ideas and is not bound to rational, logical and conven-
tional answers (p. 320; See also Isen et al. 1987).
Ziv (1976) further argued that exposure to humorous material prior perform-
ing a cognitive task can facilitate creative problem solving. Humor activates a
conversational rule of levity  —  to switch from the usual serious mindset to a
playful or non-serious humor mindset (e.g., Attardo 1993; Berlyne 1972; Ford
and Ferguson 2004; Kane et al. 1977; Mulkay 1988). Mulkay (1988), for in-
stance, suggested that when in the humor mindset people loosen the rules of
logic and expectations of common sense. Consequently, when presented with
a joke, people do not apply the information-processing strategies typically re-
quired by serious communication. They abandon the constraints of practical,
rational, logical ways of thinking.
By adopting a humor mindset prior to completing a task of cognitive-
intellectual skill, one might temporarily feel greater freedom to generate and
consider more divergent and creative problem solving strategies. It is possible,
then, that participants in the present study performed better on the math test
upon exposure to cartoons, in part, because they had adopted a humor mindset
that facilitated creative thinking and problem solving.
6.1. Exposure to humor and stereotype threat
It is well-known that women tend to under-perform on math tests taken under
conditions that foster stereotype threat  —  when they feel a risk of conrming
the negative stereotype about women’s math ability (e.g., Quinn and Spencer
2001). Ford et al. (2004), however, found that the personality trait, coping
sense of humor  —  the use of humor as a strategy for coping with stressful
experiences (Martin and Lefcourt 1983)  —  buffered women against the
performance-impairing effects of stereotype threat on math test performance
by predisposing them to experience less anxiety while taking the test. Women
who were high in coping sense of humor felt less state anxiety associated with
taking a difcult math test and consequently performed better on the test in
comparison to women who were low in coping sense of humor.
Based on the results of the present research, one may hypothesize that expo-
sure to humorous material also could help members of stereotyped groups
cope with the stress imposed by stereotype threat situations. For instance, like
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70 T. E. Ford et al.
coping sense of humor, exposure to humorous material prior to taking a math
test might buffer women against the performance impairment that occurs under
conditions that heighten the experience of stereotype threat.
6.2. Summary and conclusion
The present experiment supported the hypothesis that exposure to humorous
material prior to taking a difcult math test can inhibit the amount of state
anxiety associated with the anticipated test, and thus enhance performance.
Participants performed better on a difcult math test after rst being exposed
to funny cartoons versus non-humorous poems or nothing at all because they
experienced less state anxiety while taking the test. Further research is neces-
sary to delineate other psychological mechanisms besides anxiety that might
mediate the effect of exposure to humor on test performance. We hope the
present research will generate further interest in the relationship between hu-
mor, anxiety and task performance and the relationship between humor and
coping stressful events more generally.
Western Carolina University
Western Carolina University
University of Iowa
Western Michigan University
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Effect of humor on state anxiety and math performance 71
AppendixA  —  SampleCartoonandPoem
Sample Cartoon
Sample Poem: God and the Soldier
God and the soldier
All men adore
In time of trouble,
And no more;
For when war is over
And all things righted,
God is neglected  —
The old soldier slighted.
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72 T. E. Ford et al.
AppendixB  —  SampleMathTestProblems
If @ is dened for all positive numbers a and b by a @ b = 2ab − b2, then
5 @ 2 = .
A. 8 C. 16*
B. 12 D. 20
What is the total amount of your purchases if you bought 5 shirts at $m and 2 more
shirts at 50% off ?
A. $5m C. $7.5m
B. $6m* D. $10m
Which of the following equations gives the relationship between S and T in the table
below?
S123 4 5 6
T147101316
A. T = 2 − S C. T = 3S + 1
B. T = 4 − 3S D. T = 3S − 2*
The price of a coat is reduced by 20 percent. During an “early-bird” special all coats are
marked “Take an additional 30 percent off the reduced price.” What is the total percent
reduction during the early-bird special?
A. 50% C. 30%
B. 44%* D. 34%
If one can of Brand X dog food feeds 4 puppies or 2 adult dogs, 8 cans of Brand X dog
food will feed 24 puppies and how many adult dogs?
A. two C. eight
B. four* D. twelve
Notes
Correspondence address: Tford@wcu.edu
Brianna L. Ford and Thomas E. Ford are not related to one another.
* denotes the correct answer.
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Effect of humor on state anxiety and math performance 73
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... Several previous studies revealed that exposure to humorous information could induce positive emotions (e.g., Dienstbier, 1995;Ruch, 1997;Vilaythong et al., 2003) and, at the same time, diminish the negative ones (Moran, 1996). Previous experiments have shown that exposure to humor material enhances positive emotions (Cann et al., 2000) and reduces the negative effects (Abel & Maxwell, 2002;Berk, 2000;Ford et al., 2012;Yovetich et al., 1990) of several types of stressful events (i.e., emotionally distressing films, frustrating tasks, anticipated difficult exam, or electric shock). In particular, several works tested the hypothesis that exposure to humorous stimuli could improve performance on test examinations. ...
... Nonetheless, other studies suggested humor served a preventive function, diminishing anxiety evoked by the following stressful event/task (Berk & Nanda, 2006;Cann et al., 2000;Ford et al., 2012). In 2012, Ford and colleagues investigated whether exposure to humorous material before taking a difficult and stressful math test could inhibit the amount of anxiety associated with the test and thus improve performance. ...
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... Experimentelle Studien zur Wirkung von humorvollen Aufgaben auf Emotionen zeigten, dass diese positiven Affekt fördern und negativen Affekt reduzieren können und die humorvollen Stimuli dabei eine Art Schutzfunktion gegen Angst einnehmen können (Cann, Calhoun, & Nance, 2000). Insbesondere wird dem Humor zugeschrieben, durch die Erheiterung einen Zustand positiven Affekts zu erzeugen, der inkompatibel zur Angst ist (Ford, Ford, Boxer, & Armstrong, 2012 ...
... Humor is also effective in reducing students' stress and anxiety (Flowers, 2001) and creating a more relaxed atmosphere (Chabeli, 2008). Exposure of students to funny cartoons before a difficult math test resulted in a self-reported decrease in anxiety and an increase in test performance (Ford, Ford, Boxer, & Armstrong, 2012). Webb and Barrett (2014) found that college students voiced high levels of comfort in the lesson and found their instructors to be more approachable and less intimidating when humor was used. ...
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