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Paul Cohen, Jason Prenoveau, Ph.D., Heather Z. Lyons, Ph.D., Theresa DiDonato, Ph.D.

Variables that Moderate the Success or Failure of Humor Use in Psychotherapy

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Humor is a universal human characteristic that arises in many different aspects of life. It seems surprising that there is such little empirical research on the use of humor in psychotherapy given that humor is such a common component of our culture. Due to difficulties conducting research on humor use in psychotherapy, much existing literature consists of case studies and observations based on clinical experience. However, the circumstances that contribute to whether or not the humor use results in a risk or benefit to the client remain unclear. It is possible that factors such as client diagnosis, therapist gender, or the matching of client and therapist characteristics influence whether or not the use of humor will be successful. These factors may moderate the relationship between the use of humor and therapy outcome. The goal of the proposed study is to identify psychologists’ perceptions of some of the variables that moderate humor use in psychotherapy, that is, the variables that contribute to whether or not the humor use will be successful or a failure. In addition to identifying potential moderators, the proposed study aims to identify when psychologists use humor during psychotherapy, why they chose to use humor, and how they determine if it has been successful.

Methods: Participants for primary study will be recruited using purposive sampling. The researcher will ask several practicing psychologists who are leaders in various divisions of the American Psychological Association for recommendations of psychologists who they believe have considered using humor in psychotherapy. The researcher will email the psychologists and ask them to forward the Humor Use in Psychotherapy Questionnaire to their colleagues. Proposed study will employ a qualitative method surveying twelve doctoral-level psychologists who have been administering psychotherapy for a minimum of five years. This study will use computer-mediated data collection. Questions on the Humor Use in Psychotherapy Questionnaire include those asking about perceptions of humor and examples of humor use, as well as general demographic data. In order to better understand psychologists’ perceptions and use of humor during psychotherapy, an Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) will be employed. In IPA studies, the goal is to intensively explore how participants understand their world. In the proposed study, “understanding their world” refers to the development of an understanding of the circumstances surrounding humor use during psychotherapy. Prior to implementing the primary study, a pilot study will be conducted. The purpose of the pilot study will be to examine the logistics of the Humor Use in Psychotherapy Questionnaire, including completion time and clarity of the questions.

Results: Pilot study complete. Currently collecting data for primary study.

Discussion: The proposed study aims to provide further insight into the phenomenon that is humor use during psychotherapy. With knowledge regarding which factors may influence whether or not humor use is successful, psychologists may be able to better utilize humor as a therapeutic intervention. By utilizing qualitative methods to identify the potential moderating variables, it is the hope that future quantitative studies will be able to experimentally validate the findings.

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