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A Pediatrician, Resident, and Med Student Walk Into a Bar…Humor in Medical Education

December 22, 2021

Written by Rebecca White

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When used appropriately, humor can foster learner engagement, calm anxieties, and improve rapport during teaching encounters. But use your best judgment, because it is very subjective.

Why does this matter?
Historically, humor has gotten a bad rap in professional settings. While it can increase engagement, build student-teacher rapport, and reduce cortisol levels, it can also create a divisive or hostile learning environment when used incorrectly or misunderstood. This article lays some ground rules.

I’d tell you a joke about bones, but you may not find it humerus
This article detailed two different frameworks for classifying humor, as it relates to medical education:

The first crosses the dimensions of positive-versus-negative (indicating whether it is used to support or disparage) and self-versus-others (indicating the target). Humor that positively targets others is described as “affiliative” and can encourage team building, whereas negative other-centered humor is called “aggressive” and can be harmful to learning environments.

From cited article

Another model identifies three purposes to humor: superiority, incongruity, and relief. The purpose of superiority-based humor is to heighten oneself by putting others down; microaggressions often occur in this category. In incongruity theory, humor is enacted to provide contradiction (like this pun… never upset a pediatrician; they have very little patients) and is often viewed positively. Relief humor, such as sarcasm or irony, is subjectively interpreted and should be avoided in learning environments.

Ultimately, the onus is on the teacher to ensure their humor is appropriate for the clinical setting. But tread carefully, because a well-meaning comment could make a trainee feel marginalized. If being funny isn’t your strong suit, have no fear! There are many other methods for promoting effective learning.

A Pediatrician, a Resident, and a Medical Student Walk Into a Clinic: The Role of Humor in Clinical Teaching. Pediatrics. 2021 Nov;148(5):e2021053044. doi: 10.1542/peds.2021-053044. Epub 2021 Oct 15.

What are your thoughts?