Psychology often tries to unravel emotional mysteries, but some resist investigation more than others.
One of these long-standing mysteries is the reality of humor. What exactly makes a joke funny or not? And to whom? It is this question which has long puzzled psychologists and philosophers, and Scientific American’s Giovanni Sabato attempts to trace the history of theory and research on humor in a recent article.
Sabato delves into a long philosophical tradition, including the likes of Plato and Sigmund Freud, which has sought to model how humor works. While Plato and other ancient Greeks theorized that humor resulted from a sense of superiority over the failings of others, Freud made a great deal about the tendency for humor to thrive on the violation of taboos.
Another theory has focused on the idea of “incongruity.” Humor is derived from the subversion of expectations or the incompatibility of various concepts or situations. This helps explain the presence of double meanings and puns in humor, and it showcases the frequency with which humor deals with unexpected punchlines or resolutions to tricky situations.
The latter should be pretty intuitive to anyone who has watched a sitcom!
One more modern attempt to develop a unified theory of humor has built on that idea of incongruity. Drs. Peter McGraw and Caleb Warren, of the University of Colorado, Boulder, have introduced the idea of “benign violation.”
This theory focuses on humor being derived from violations of expectations surrounding norms. When somebody acts in a way that they are not supposed to, if it does not result in indignation or scandal, the situation will often be perceived as humorous.
There is also a role here for being distant from that particular, often awkward, violation. By hearing these stories second-hand from a comedian or friend, we have enough distance to find these situations funny.
However, this theory of distance and violation is not the only popular theory. Some psychologists and evolutionary biologists simply see humor as an evolutionary mechanism. Spontaneous and genuine laughter is deeply ingrained in our biology, while contrived and forced laughter developed as a way of smoothing social situations.
One way that humor can be derived from our hard-wired evolutionary experiences is related to the subversion of expectations. A group of philosophers, including Matthew Hurley of Indiana University Bloomington, saw humor as related to mistakes, or at least to their detection.
Our mind naturally assumes that it knows what will happen, relying on heuristics to predict likely events, but when things don’t happen as they should, for instance when another person acts erratically, we interpret that as humor.
None of these are necessarily perfect explanations for such a complex phenomenon. However, they help situate the question of humor into our cognitive and evolutionary history. From past blogs, we already know that emotional expressions are deeply rooted in evolution, and we know that properly reading people often depends on situating our experiences into these cognitive roots.