Defense Date


Graduation Date

Fall 2009


Immediate Access

Submission Type


Degree Name



Clinical Psychology


McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts

Committee Chair

Roger Brooke

Committee Member

Constance Fischer

Committee Member

Jessie Goicoechea

Committee Member

Salvatore Attardo


conversation analysis, humor in counseling, humor in psychotherapy, humour in psychotherapy, phenomenological research, qualitative research


Literature on humor in psychotherapy has been strongly influenced by a debate on whether therapists should engage in humor with clients. Many authors urge caution and are suspicious of humor's use by therapists. Others argue that humor is helpful in therapy and illustrate its uses through clinical evidence, mainly anecdotes from the author's experience. The debate on humor's admissibility in psychotherapy treats humor as optional, and thereby ignores its centrality in human relating and its inevitability in the therapeutic relationship.

Since humor inevitably arises in psychotherapy, it is important for therapists to know typical manifestations and meanings of humor in psychotherapy. Many functions and risks of humor have been enumerated in the literature, but the available insights are scattered and partial. A common understanding of humor in therapy that is based upon a broad range of actual instances is needed. This study provides a comprehensive description of humor as it occurs in client-led, psychodynamic psychotherapy.

The study occurred at the Duquesne University Psychology Clinic and involved the analysis of more than fifty instances of humor from five recorded psychotherapy sessions, conducted by three therapists with five clients. Recorded humor instances from these sessions were reviewed and discussed with participants, and information from these discussions informed subsequent analyses of humor. Clinical, conversation, and humor theory analyses of each instance of humor were utilized to construct a general description of humor in psychotherapy. In addition, the dynamics and meanings of humor were explicated to inform clinical practice and humor theory.

Important findings of the study include the observation that most humor in the sessions was much more context-dependent (i.e., "you had to be there" to get it) than the examples found in the literature. In addition, most humor in these sessions was produced by clients rather than therapists. Since the humor in psychotherapy literature has focused on readily understandable humor and on the therapist's "use" of humor, these findings show that the literature has insufficiently addressed the most prevalent forms of humor in client-led, psychodynamic therapy. This study contributes by characterizing these and other important forms of humor in psychotherapy.