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Can We Compare New and Old Theories of Laughter?

New explanations should be able to explain why their predecessors flourished.

Key points

  • Theories to explain why humans laugh have been around for thousands of years, and for good reason.
  • New explanations should be able to reconcile where there is overlap and where they go beyond.
  • Mutual Vulnerability Theory compares and contrasts well with both Incongruity and Tension Relief theories.

The following is the first of a two-part post.

Those of you familiar with this blog and the Mutual Vulnerability Theory of Laughter (MVT) may be interested in how the conclusions of other scholars (i.e., those favoring different theories) intersect with my own. After all, if Perks (2012) is correct, the most prominent laughter/humor theories (Superiority, Incongruity, and Tension Relief theories) have been, to some degree, informative for more than 2,000 years. It would be indeed surprising if there were no areas of overlap with the MVT.

Source: Alexas Fotos/Pexels
Source: Alexas Fotos/Pexels

A striking example of this confluence of thought relates to the importance of status differentials and the desire for increased parity, something also posited by the MVT, which understands laughter as a vocal affirmation of mutual vulnerability. Joyce Hertzler (1970) observed, “Laughing together on the part of occupants of the different statuses may have a distinct equalizing effect, and is often resorted to in order to bring about at least a temporary feeling, possibly even state, of equality.” This sounds very much like the MVT, for status is what people use to measure vulnerability—higher status equates with less vulnerability; lower status with greater vulnerability (Simon, 2020).

Here I’ll provide what authors of every new conceptual model should include in their arguments: how their theory accommodates the obvious insights and strengths of prior explanations, even as it goes further in pursuit of a more comprehensive understanding.

Reconciling Incongruity Theory

As you may recall, the proponents of Incongruity Theory begin their search for laughter’s role in the rational thought centers of the human brain. Laughter, they maintain, is a cognitive response to the perception of incongruity. We don’t laugh at things or circumstances unless we first recognize them as out of the ordinary, counter to our expectations, and then go on to “resolve” just how our expectations were deceived. This is especially true when our fear of some serious consequence is suddenly found to be erroneous, “benign” (e.g., McGraw and Warren, 2010), or “playful” (e.g., Winkler and Bryant, 2021).

We can see quite clearly that Incongruity Theory meshes easily with the MVT. Where Incongruity Theory uses the rather broad and sweeping notion of “incongruous” versus “expected,” MVT makes the distinction between a perception of “vulnerability” and the “norm.” Where Incongruity Theory recognizes the importance of “descending incongruity” or the “play frame,” a serious consequence (or situation) being replaced by a not-so-serious one, MVT makes the distinction between “deficiency” and “vulnerability.”

Source: Aryaman Chaturvedi/Pexels
Source: Aryaman Chaturvedi/Pexels

What do we make of “resolution”? The important concept of resolution helps Incongruity Theory account for those inconsistencies having no humorous qualities. Proponents simply contend the incongruity has not been “resolved”—in other words, the audience doesn’t have the information necessary to solve the particular conundrum at hand. This explains the differences one might find between a child’s perspective and an adult’s, or between an individual less familiar with a certain topic or skill set and someone who is much more so.

MVT, too, recognizes the need for a certain level of information to distinguish vulnerability from normality or deficiency but goes much further in explaining variation. It accounts for differences in the way we might perceive or fail to perceive vulnerability (e.g., our mood or overall personality), differences in how we determine the significance of potential changes in status (e.g., cultural context), and, just as important, differences in our desire to express our feelings about those status shifts (e.g., our relationship with others nearby). When incongruity speaks of “resolution,” it’s actually referring to the process by which a person makes the connection between the perceived vulnerability and the effect that vulnerability has on the referent’s status quo.

Reconciling Tension Relief Theory

If Incongruity Theory deals primarily with the cognitive prerequisites of laughter, Tension Relief Theory focuses mainly on its emotional requirements. Tension Relief Theory is centered on the notion that laughter’s primary function is to release unneeded, even self-destructive, emotional “energy.” Laughter, it is argued, dissipates surplus fear, aggression, anxiety, and sexual tension.

Although Tension Relief Theory is rarely used as a complete explanation of laughter, it remains a significant component—the emotional undercurrent—of other theories. Tension or anxiety is increased as we struggle to make sense of an incongruity or threat, and then is released after a positive resolution. Laughter is restorative, a sort of pressure equalizer. In this respect, Tension Relief Theory accounts for the range of laugh responses from short, mild giggles to fall-on-the-floor, teary-eyed bellows.

Source: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
Source: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

Again, there is obvious overlap with the MVT. Things that cause fear, anxiety, and tension are intimately linked to perceived vulnerabilities. We tend not to associate them with normal modes of behavior or the mundane circumstances of our everyday lives. They’re outside the norm—the sticky situations, conflicts, uncertainties, challenges, exciting moments, the strange and weird, or the strange and wonderful. Tension Relief Theory requires these to conclude with positive consequences, or at least a positive interpretation of negative consequences. It’s the not-so-serious or not-so-threatening outcomes we tend to find most amusing. In the MVT, we can recognize these as evidence of vulnerabilities rather than deficiencies.

Tension Relief Theory is compatible with MVT in two other senses. Amusement, as defined by MVT, is an emotional state: the desire, the motivation, to express feelings of mutual vulnerability. Generally speaking, we don’t simply recognize a potential shortcoming and respond with laughter; we typically associate it with someone with whom we relate and wish to communicate. Our mood matters; our feelings about our status and that of others matter; and the larger cultural context, including our place within it, matters. Second, laughter does have, in both Tension Relief Theory and MVT, a corrective effect, a restorative quality. Laughter’s function is to help reestablish an earlier, or more desirable, status relationship. The one who laughs is inevitably going to be relieved about such a prospect.

© John Charles Simon


Hertzler, J. O. (1970). Laughter: A Socio-Scientific Analysis. New York: Expedition Press.

McGraw, A. P. and Warren, C. (2010). Benign violations: Making immoral behavior funny. Psychological Science, 21(8), 1141–1149.

Perks, L. G. (2012). The ancient roots of humor theory. Humor, 25(2), 119–132.

Simon, J. C. (2020). Laughter redefined. The Israeli Journal of Humor Research, 9(1), 72–90.

Winkler, S. L. and Bryant, G. A. (2021). Play vocalisations and human laughter: a comparative review. Bioacoustics, 30(5), 499–526.

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