We’ve all heard that laughter is the best medicine. Indeed, scientists have explored how humor might protect against heart disease or help cancer patients cope with their diagnosis. But laughter may be more than a remedy.
“Humor is one of the most profound communication connections that we have to others,” said Sara McBride, a social scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). “It can connect us, it can create relationships, it can create empathy.”
By combining the serious science of comedy with case studies of crisis communication that incorporated humor, McBride and USGS volcanologist Jessica Ball traced patterns in successful, humorous crisis communication campaigns. In their paper, published in International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, McBride and Ball constructed guidelines for how science agencies might use humor while keeping empathy at the fore.
A Lava Rooster and Volcanic S’mores
In early May of 2018, on the eastern side of the island of Hawai‘i, lushly vegetated ground opened beneath a rural neighborhood. Fissures cracked, lava flowed, and homes succumbed to molten rock. Kīlauea was erupting. To quickly alert and easily converse with affected communities, the USGS Volcano Hazard program made use of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, where surreal livestreams of fountaining lava helped people monitor the survival (or loss) of their homes.
About 2 weeks into this crisis, Rusty the Lava Rooster rose to Internet fame.
Residents noticed with amusement his cock-a-doodle-doo soundtrack incongruously superimposed on a fiery background of destruction. This positive reception signaled to the USGS Volcanoes media team, of which Ball is a part, that local audiences might be ready for a dose of humor with their science and hazard updates.
As social media users continued to engage with USGS eruption updates, one tweet queried whether marshmallows roasted over lava flows would be poisonous. Unsurprisingly, the USGS strongly discouraged any would-be s’more makers, said Ball.
The USGS wanted to answer the question for a couple of reasons, said Ball. First of all, “there’s the potential for some really serious injuries, or even people getting killed,” if they tried to roast marshmallows at an erupting volcano, she said. More prosaically, the high amount of sulfur gas emitted during Kīlauea’s eruption would yield an awful-tasting marshmallow. (Remember, certain sulfur gases emit the displeasing smell of flatulence, and taste and smell are linked.) Finally, the USGS team wanted to discourage sightseers from trespassing through someone’s lava-covered backyard.
By responding to a humorous question, the USGS became part of what turned into an engaging discourse, with news outlets like CNN and the BBC comedically reporting the Twitter-spawned conversation to the delight of many and chagrin of some.
Timing Is (Almost) Everything
Whether humor is appropriate or not undergirds McBride and Ball’s guide to its effective use. “If you have any doubt,” said Ball, “then maybe it’s best not to use.”
For example, when the human cost is unimaginably high, as was the case with the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami that killed more than 200,000 people, jokes may never be acceptable. “Timing is everything,” said Ball, and sometimes it’s always too soon.
Cracking jokes too early may come across as insensitive or cruel. Too late, and a joke may be out of touch. People need to have some physical, temporal, or emotional distance from the event. For example, affected communities found humor in Kīlauea’s eruption after about 2 weeks, said Ball. At this point, many residents had evacuated areas overrun by lava.
Beyond timing, media matters. Social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook may require different content than traditional outlets. Who dispenses the humor may also increase (or decrease) its effects. “Scientists who have the best shot at being funny are local scientists who are known in the community,” said McBride.
Agencies should keep their target audience—those affected by a crisis—in mind when considering humor. “We have analytical tools that we use on all of our social media accounts that can tell where the views, comments, and interactions are coming from,” said Ball. During the 2018 Kīlauea eruption, she said, the USGS Volcanoes media team consistently assessed whether they were interacting with actual residents of Hawai‘i to ensure that the USGS maintained good relationships with those affected.
When the 2016 Kaikōura earthquake struck New Zealand, GeoNet, the science agency of which McBride was a part at the time, began lightening the endless stream of aftershock updates on their social media channels with #EmergencyCute images of adorable animals.
“Humor is a huge part of the New Zealand identity,” said McBride. “When we were putting kittens and puppies on the GeoNet Twitter feed…we got an enormous amount of positive response from the community.”
Animal-based humor like Rusty and #EmergencyCute is soothing and safe, said McBride, while self-deprecating humor can humanize seemingly stodgy scientists.
Making people feel bad or worse is never the goal, McBride said, which means mockery, exclusion of certain groups, and animal cruelty should always be off limits.
Giving people what they want and need in times of seismic crises is a topic carefully considered by Umberto Fracassi, an earthquake scientist at Italy’s Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia, the institution responsible for retrieving and distributing information about seismic activity to Italy’s Civil Protection Department, which then communicates with the general public. Italy may be a place where scientists would hesitate to incorporate humor because of the trial of six scientists and a former Civil Protection member who, as a group, were accused of inadequately assessing earthquake risk and suggesting that a major earthquake wasn’t likely—one day before the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake, which resulted in the deaths of more than 300 people.
Beyond the L’Aquila problem, languages other than English may not convey humor in the necessary gentle and appropriate manner, said Fracassi. Imagery, he said, might be an alternative way to subtly communicate considerate humor. Surveys designed to ascertain whether adults in Italy would be amenable to humor in crisis communication could also inform whether such an avenue would be worth pursing, he said.
Fracassi’s ideas could help science agencies in other countries determine whether McBride and Ball’s model might be well received by their citizens.
A “gentle science” approach, said Fracassi, “is the best lesson to draw from the paper.”
—Alka Tripathy-Lang (@DrAlkaTrip), Science Writer