5 Leading Theories for Why We Laugh—and the Jokes That Prove Them Wrong

5 Leading Theories for Why We Laugh—and the Jokes That Prove Them Wrong

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Slate's Culture Blog
May 13 2011 6:49 PM

5 Leading Theories for Why We Laugh—and the Jokes That Prove Them Wrong

"It's funny because it's true."


There are a lot of theories, like this one, thattry to explain why we find things funny. But like the blind man's descriptionof the elephant, most of them are only partially right.


In their recently published book Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind ,MatthewHurley, Daniel Dennett, and Reginald Adams Jr. a cognitive scientist, aphilosopher, and a psychologist set out to discover a grand unified theory ofhumor. That theory would properly address questions such as: Why do only humans seem to have humor? Why do wecommunicate it with laughter? How can puns and knock-knock jokes be in the samecategory as comic insults? Why does timing matter in joke telling? And, ofcourse, what are the necessary and sufficient conditions for a thing to befunny?

Inbrief, the researchers assert that humor serves an evolutionary purpose: Incomprehending the world, we sometimes commit too soon to conclusions we'vejumped to; the humor emotion, mirth, rewards us for figuring out where we'vemade such mistakes. In developing this view, the authors considered butultimately had to discard some long-cherished theories. Here, they present fivesuch hypotheses plus the jokes that demonstrate that they don't hold water:

#1: The Superiority Theory

We learn a lot about humor on the playground, where taunts andteases produce laughter for the masses but shame and embarrassment for anunlucky few. Without a doubt, ridicule is one of humor's primary uses. ThomasHobbes took this view very seriously when he suggested that laughter is a"sudden glory" we feel over the butt of a joke. But if humoractually did spring out of a feelingof superiority, then every time we felt better than someone, we would want tolaugh and every joke, in turn, would have to give us a sense of dominance. Theformer isn't true because we often win games and competitions without laughing,and because it's possible to insult someone without also ridiculing them. Thelatter isn't true either, since some jokes don't evoke any feeling ofsuperiority in the listener. For example:

Police were called to a daycare, where athree-year-old was resisting a rest.

#2: The Incongruity and Incongruity-Resolution Theories

One of the oldest andmost developed theories of humor adopted by Kant, refined by Schopenhauer is, roughly,that humor happens when there is an incongruity between what we expect and whatactually happens. But the 19 th -century Scottish philosopher AlexanderBain pointed out that not all incongruities are necessarily funny like, forexample, parental cruelty, a breach of contract, or an out-of-tune instrument.Beginning in the 1970s, psychologists began to revise Kant's notion into whatis now called the Incongruity-Resolution theory: People laugh at a situationnot just because it's incongruous, but because they realize that the incongruitycan be resolved or interpreted in a different way. This theory seems to makesense when you consider how a punch-line works: First, a joke sets up asituation; then, a cleverly constructed punch-line causes the listener toreconsider what he's just heard.  

But not allreinterpreted incongruities are funny, either. When House, M.D., encounters astrange set of symptoms that don't seem to belong together, and his teameventually diagnoses the reason, nobody laughs. Plus, there's a lot ofnon-sequitur humor that doesn't involve resolution:

A man at the dinnertable dipped his hands in the mayonnaise and then ran them through his hair.When his neighbor looked astonished, the man apologized: "I'm so sorry. Ithought it was spinach."

#3: The Benign Violation Theory

In the late '90s, atheorist named Thomas Veatch offered a model that is called the BenignViolation Theory. It helps take into account the deficiencies of theory #2, byclaiming that we laugh when something is violated like morals, social codes,linguistic norms, or personal dignity but the violation isn't threatening. (Recently, as described in the Aprilissue of Wired , the experimentalpsychologist Peter McGraw has been testing this theory in the laboratory.)

Okay, we'll admit: It'stough to find jokes that don't have something that could be construed as a benign violation. But that's not because thetheory is right, but because the category is so enormous it's not a specificenough descriptor. After all, it's also tough to find a car that isn't "bigger than abreadbox and mostly metal," but that descriptor doesn't define a car. We can say that there are plenty of benignviolations that aren't funny at all, like when people drive just a few milesper hour above the speed limit, or without their seat belts on. So as anexplanation of humor, BVT doesn't help us much. We did hear one malign, yethilarious, joke the other day:

"DonaldTrump said that he was running for president as a Republican. That's funny,because I thought he was running as a joke." Seth Meyers, WhiteHouse Correspondents' Dinner, April 2011

#4: The Mechanical Theory

Mostcomic characters depend for their laughs on enduring personality traits: Take HomerSimpson's inability to anticipate consequences "Doh!" or Austin Powers' single-mindedsex-drive.  If Kramer , Al Bundy , Dwight Schrute ,or Blanche Devereaux aregetting a laugh, anyone familiar with these characters can guess the generalreason why within three tries. The French philosopher Henri Bergson believedthat it is inadaptability or rigidity the repetitive nature of our personalities thatis the source of humor. If this were true, though, our every ingrained habitwould be hilarious. But we don't laugh every time we double-check to make surethe car doors are locked, or when we compulsively check our email at 2 A.M., evenwhen we know no one is sending us anything. Most jokes, in fact, areantithetical to this theory since they don't depend on any kind of monotony ofbehavior. Puns are easy examples:

"Emailis the happy medium between male and female." Douglas Hofstadter

#5: The Release Theory

Freud thought thathilarity and laughter were reactions we produce in order to release sexual oraggressive tension. The release, Freud said, would be triggered by the dramaticor surprising occurrence in the punch-line. But many dramatic surprises are notpleasant at all, and jokes that are neither aggressive nor sexual can work onus regardless of how tense we are.

"A conclusion is the place where you got tired of thinking." Steven Wright

Matthew Hurley, DanielDennett, and Reginald Adams Jr.

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Nina Shen Rastogi is a writer and editor, and is also the vice president for content at Figment.

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