Can Psychology Explain Humor?

Humor is more than just surprise or a violation of expectations.

Posted Apr 12, 2016

Hedphones via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Hedphones via Wikimedia Commons

Humor is a pervasive part of human experience.  If you watch people in social groups, they spend a lot of time laughing.  Many popular forms of entertainment are focused on creating humorous situations.   A lot of the links, pictures, and videos that people share on social media are also funny.

Despite the importance of humor in people’s lives, it has been remarkably difficult to understand the conditions that make something funny.  In fact, if you ask most people what their theory of humor is, they will often respond that it has something to do with unexpected events.

The question of what makes something funny was taken up in an interesting paper in the March, 2016 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Caleb Warren and Peter McGraw (author of the book The Humor Code). 

They start by pointing out that there are lots of ways that things can be unexpected or incongruent.  Some events are just genuinely unexpected or surprising.  Others involve a strange juxtaposition of things that should not belong together.  For example, a recent cover of The New Yorker magazine had a cartoon of a hipster and a Chassidic Jew standing side-by-side on the subway, and both had similar long beards.  Still other incongruous events are just atypical.  Finally, some unexpected events are violations of some norm or standard of how the world ought to be.

The problem with focusing on just these violations of expectations, though, is that there are many events that are unexpected or surprising, but not funny.  Winning the lottery is wonderful and surprising, but not funny.  Likewise, getting hit in the back of the head with a snowball while walking down the street is painful and surprising, but not funny. 

These researchers suggest that what differentiates funny things from merely surprising ones is that people find humor in what they call benign violations.  A violation is a failure of expectations about how things are supposed to be.  Benign violations are ones that make people uncomfortable, but ultimately are safe. 

In one study, participants rated the humor of a video of a pole vaulter whose jump failed because his pole snapped as he tries to lift off the ground.  People found thought the video in which the pole snapped was funnier than the one in which the jumper cleared the bar successfully.  They even found it funny if they were told in advance what was going to happen, so surprise alone did not predict humor.  A second group who was told that the pole vaulter was injured in this attempt did not find the video to be funny.  So, the humor involved a violation that was ultimately harmless.

Another study asked people to generate examples of products.   Some people were asked to generate products that juxtaposed two different features that are not normally found together but are appropriate.  People generated examples like luggage with a fold-out seat.  These products were judged to be surprising, but not funny.

Other people were asked to generate products that juxtaposed features not normally found together to create a combination that is useless or inappropriate. This group generated examples like beer-flavored lipstick.  These items were also somewhat surprising, but they were judged to be funny. 

There were several other studies in this paper.  In one of interest, participants came to a lab and a confederate who was posing as another participant either gave the participant a piece of candy or threw the candy at them.  The confederate either told the participant before they acted what they were going to do or they told them afterward.  The participants laughed most often in the condition in which the participant warned them that they were going throw candy and then threw it.  This condition was funny, because the action was not seen as being dangerous, while the unexpected throw of the candy (while unexpected) could also be viewed as aggressive or dangerous until the participant understood what was happening. 

This set of studies suggests that the idea of a benign violation is a good explanation of many forms of humor.  There is an element of unexpectedness, but it happens in a way that violates people’s beliefs about how the world is supposed to be in a safe way.  This line of research is interesting, because it provides an explanation for humor that seems to do a good job of distinguishing between many situations that are humorous and others that share some features with those situations, but are not seen to be funny.

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