• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ
Photo/Getty Images

The psychology behind nationality jokes

If Aussie sheep jokes get your goat, console yourself that every nation is the butt of someone’s humour.

The second page that Google gave me in my search for “funniest New Zealand jokes” had 52 entries. Twenty required me to indicate that “I am over 18” as “This joke may include profanity”. Twelve of 20 involved sheep and another 10 or so also involved sheep but didn’t use any explicitly sexual words so avoided the advisory.

Here’s a sample: Why do New Zealand horses run so fast? Because they saw what happened to the sheep. This association between New Zealanders and sheep is what social psychologists call a stereotype.

That most of the sheep jokes have us as the butt suggests it’s probably Australians who were up-voting them. But there were also a number of jokes aimed at Australians and the English.

It’s pretty common for jokes to involve a punchline at someone’s expense, and it’s probably true – I’m sure it is but can’t back it up – that every nation has a particular category that is the butt of the national joke.

In his book Quirkology, UK psychologist Richard Wiseman writes about his quest for the funniest joke in the world and gives an example of Canadian ribbing of Newfoundlanders. “A Newfoundlander friend of mine heard that every minute a woman gives birth to a baby. He thinks she should be stopped.” Ba-doom. The English target the Irish, Americans target Canadians, and so the joke goes on.

This, Wiseman and others suggest, supports one of the earliest theories of humour: many jokes make us feel superior to someone else. This theory goes back at least as far as such classical philosophers as Plato and Aristotle. Admittedly, these philosophers were not fans of humour because it fulfils such a base function.

And there may be something to that. More contemporary research suggests jokes, apart from making us laugh, can also affect the way we think about the people who are the target, and even how those people think about themselves.

For instance, after reading out a series of jokes about Newfoundlanders, Canadian research participants developed a more negative stereotype of “Newfies”.

Jokes about Aussies don’t make us think they’re smarter or nicer, this would suggest. Indeed, we can use humour rather insidiously not just to derogate people we already think are inferior, but as a screen to hide our derogation behind.

Michael Billig. Photo/Supplied

British social psychology academic Michael Billig has written about laughter and ridicule and, in one particularly spectacular journal paper, the strategic use of humour by racist groups. It analyses the use of humour on websites sharing sympathies with the Ku Klux Klan.

Among other things, Billig points to the common disclaimer that accompanies (either implicitly or explicitly) racist humour that it’s “just a joke”. In other words, it’s your fault if you get offended.

As he points out, it’s not uncommon to hear such justifications in everyday interactions when humour is called out. But the words “just” and “only” don’t appear on the sites he analyses; in those cases, the humour is not just a joke.

And what of the targets of superiority jokes? There is some reason to think that targets, be they blondes or racial minorities, internalise the stereotypes portrayed in jokes. The classic, though now-controversial, study on this involved blonde women reading either blonde or non-blonde jokes and then taking an intelligence test – the women who read the blonde jokes reportedly performed more poorly, or stereotype-consistently, than those who did not. Not by much, but how much worse is okay?

When it comes to jokes, we need to watch our language. Freud reportedly once said that although a cigar is often just a cigar, a joke is never just a joke.

This article was first published in the December 14, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.