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Can you laugh at yourself? Scientists put humor to the test

You oversleep and have about five minutes to get ready for work. When you get to the office, one of your ever-observant colleagues points out that you’re wearing two different shoes.

Do you A) laugh it off or B) turn bright red and hurry out to retrieve a matching shoe, hoping no one else notices?

“Laughing at oneself is really seen as this core component of a sense of humor,” says Ursula Beermann, a psychology post-doc at the University of California, Berkeley. But, wondered Beermann, “does it really exist?”

As you might imagine, that’s a tough question to answer scientifically.

But Beermann and her coauthor, Willibald Ruch, designed a study that borrows a little bit from the classic TV show “Candid Camera.” They enlisted 67 psychology undergrads for what they vaguely described as a study about “humor and personality.” Each of the students was supposed to pick one or two friends to participate.

The 67 subjects rated their ability to laugh at themselves (as well as other components of humor), and their friends provided third-party ratings. Unbeknownst to the subjects, a computer screen camera took pictures of them while they tapped out answers to the humor questionnaire as well as one designed to measure how cheerful or grumpy they were.

A little while later, the subjects were asked to rate how funny distorted photos of strangers’ faces were (Mac Photo Booth software had turned the pictures into fun-house mirror-type images). The subjects were surprised to see distorted photos of themselves among the strangers’.

Video cameras captured their reactions, which the researchers then analyzed using something called Ekman’s Facial Action Coding system. This system focuses on specific facial muscles. When the volunteers saw distorted photos of themselves, did they smile? Was it a genuine, eye-crinkling smile, or did they plaster on a fake smile out of politeness?

Turns out, all information the researchers collected converged: Friends of the folks who claimed to be able to laugh at themselves agreed. The folks who claimed to be able to laugh at themselves were most likely to find a distorted picture of their own mug funny, although they weren’t necessarily more likely to laugh at strangers’ distorted faces. In addition, the subjects who were amused by their own distorted face tended to be more cheerful.

If being able to laugh at oneself is a key part of a good sense of humor, you’d think people who earn a living making others laugh would be really good at it, right?

Kevin Camia should know. After all, Camia’s debut stand-up CD, “Kindness,” was chosen by iTunes as a Top 10 comedy album for 2010.

“Laughing at yourself? You have to be able to do that in order to get onstage,” says the San Francisco-based Camia, who frequently riffs on being Filipino. “There’s something about when comics do self-deprecating humor, it makes the audience feel more comfortable. It’s something they can relate to.”

Are you able to laugh at yourself? Leave a comment telling us about the last time you did.