Humor is a universal phenomenon, present in virtually all human groups. Despite its ubiquity, humor is far from being fully understood. Why does humor exist at all? Why is it important and meaningful to us? Why does it bring us pleasure? Great thinkers have been pursuing these questions for centuries, yet we still have not found satisfying answers.
Charles Darwin saw humor as a “tickling of the mind.” According to the evolutionary perspective, humor is a form of social play that built camaraderie and communicated emotion as early as 4 million years ago among early hominids. This idea is supported by the fact that chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos, and orangutans engage in social laughter.
Half a century after Darwin, Freud offered another explanation, suggesting that humor is the release of tension. Freud held that certain events create sexual or aggressive energy; when that energy is released all at once, we experience it as humor.
The most popular theory of humor at the moment is incongruity-resolution (I-R) theory. Immanuel Kant proposed the earliest form of this theory in the late 18th century, when he wrote in Critique of Pure Reason, “Laughter is an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing.” Simply put, I-R theory states that humor arises when we are presented with absurd or unexpected information, which is then resolved gracefully or unexpectedly (i.e., a good punch line). I-R theory can’t explain everything, but if you apply it to jokes or funny experiences in your own life, you’ll find it can explain most instances of humor.
For a good exploration of this topic, check out Inside Jokes by Matthew Hurley, Daniel Dennett, and Reginald B. Adams. The authors take an evolutionary and cognitive approach, arguing that humor developed over time as an adaptation to an increasingly complex world. Humans are faced with a lot of information, the argument goes, and in order to make the best behavioral choices, we must parse the useful and factual information from the redundant and false. Humor serves as brain candy, an incentive to sort through piles of input to determine which cognitions and beliefs to keep, and which to throw out.
Although humor is present in all human groups, its content varies significantly across cultures. Many jokes don’t translate well—or at all—because of differences in social structure and cultural norms. There is no universally appreciated joke; what is funny in one culture may not be amusing in another. There are, however, some universally appreciated aspects of humor. For example, people of all cultures laugh at incongruities and their resolutions. Studies also show that humor techniques like exaggeration, understatement, witty cynicism, verbal irony, disguise, and deception are consistently funny in markedly different regions of the world.
In 2001, researchers at the University of Haifa in Israel collaborated with Singaporean psychologist Janie Leong Siew Yin to measure humor among Singaporean college students and compare the results to North American and Israeli samples. The most notable differences occurred between Singaporean and North American participants.
Participants reported on their use and appreciation of humor and the frequency with which they found amusement in daily life. They were also asked to write down a joke and describe someone they considered to have an especially good sense of humor.
A content analysis of the jokes revealed a striking difference between Singaporeans and Americans: Americans were far more likely to tell sexual jokes. Thirty-seven percent of Americans told sex jokes, but only 23 percent of Singaporeans did the same.
This difference in joke content is best understood as a reflection of broad cultural norms. America is relatively liberal when it comes to matters of sexuality, while Singapore is more conservative. Citizens in Singapore are brought up in Hindu, Muslim, or Confucian traditions. Gender roles are largely polarized, promiscuity is frowned upon, and pornography is forbidden by law. (In fact, the researchers had to abandon one of their humor measures because it contained a racy cartoon that would have offended participants.)
Singaporeans skimped on the sex, but they made up for it with violence. A little more than half of Singaporean jokes were aggressive, as compared to only 42 percent of American jokes. Researchers traced this difference all the way back to the physical environment of Singapore. Natural resources are scarce in the country, and competition has been fierce throughout history. This has led to an emphasis on strength for survival and aggressiveness as a cultural trait.
This study also showed that Singaporeans didn’t use humor as a coping mechanism as often as Americans. The researchers weren’t expecting this difference but guessed that it might reflect a larger cultural difference. American media tout the use of humor as a form of release and public relations tool—a way to alleviate anxiety. The traditional Chinese approach, on the other hand, frames humor as a tool to illustrate a concept, prove a point, or win an argument. It teaches while it entertains. The understated, utilitarian Chinese approach to humor may not lend itself to using humor as a means to relieve stress and cope with difficult life situations.
We have yet to arrive at a definitive explanation of humor, but we haven’t stopped trying. By juxtaposing universal and culturally-specific aspects of humor, we come closer to understanding how much of humor is hardwired and how much is the result of experience in a particular culture and society.
In the meantime, we’ll continue to find punch lines, irony, and fodder for laughter in the world around us. We can’t help it.
Hurley, M.W., Dennett, D.C. & Adams, R.B. (2011). Inside Jokes. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Nevo, O., Nevo, B. & Yin, J.L. (2001). Singaporean humor: a cross-cultural, cross-gender comparison. Journal of General Psychology. 128, 143-156.