The old adage "tragedy plus time equals comedy" has gained some traction in the world of psychology with new research showing that subconscious thoughts about death can lead to funnier jokes.

It's well known that humor is an invaluable tool when dealing with crippling grief. Psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl once listed a "grim sense of humor" as one of the coping mechanisms that he used to face the horrors of Auschwitz.

Two psychiatrists wondered if this relationship works in reverse and if preoccupations with death could stimulate comedic creativity. They had a group of students create humorous captions for a New Yorker cartoon after being presented with either topics about pain or death.

In the first setting, the 54 subjects were split into two groups and asked to watch a computer screen. Each person was unconsciously exposed to a word that was flashed across the screen over the course of 33 milliseconds. For one group, the word was "pain" and for the other "death." Students who confronted a subliminal message of "death" wrote funnier captions, as judged by an independent jury of students.

The opposite occurred when 63 subjects were divided and asked to write a few sentences on their feelings about death or about a painful visit to the dentist, before composing funny captions for a cartoon. Conscious thoughts about death generated less humorous captions according to the panel.

The findings imply that tragic reminders may sometimes promote creativity, but dwelling too heavily on sadness stifles inventiveness.

Source: Long CR, Greenwood DN. Joking in the face of death: A terror management approach to humor production. HUMOR. 2013.