Theories of Humor

dan oshannon

There are many theories of humor which attempt to explain what humor is, what social function it serves, and what would be considered humorous. It would be very difficult to explain humor to a hypothetical person who did not have a sense of humor already. In fact, to such a person humor would appear to be quite strange if not outright irrational behavior.

Among the prevailing types of theories that attempt to account for the existence of humor there are: psychological theories (the vast majority of which consider humor to be very healthy behavior); spiritual theories (which may consider humor to be a ‘gift from God’). There are also theories that consider humor to be an unexplainable mystery, very much like a mystical experience. Although various classical theories of humor and laughter may be found, in contemporary academic literature three theories of humor appear repeatedly: relief theory, superiority theory, and incongruity theory.

Relief theory maintains that laughter is a homeostatic mechanism by which psychological tension is reduced. Humor may thus for example serve to facilitate relief of the tension caused by one’s fears. Laughter and mirth, according to relief theory, results from this release of nervous energy. Humor, according to relief theory, is used mainly to overcome sociocultural inhibitions and reveal suppressed desires. The superiority theory of humor traces back to Plato and Aristotle, and Thomas Hobbes’ ‘Leviathan.’ A person laughs about misfortunes of others (schadenfreude), because these misfortunes assert the person’s superiority on the background of shortcomings of others.

For Aristotle, we laugh at inferior or ugly individuals, because we feel a joy at being superior to them. Socrates was reported by Plato as saying that the ridiculous was characterized by a display of self-ignorance. The incongruity theory states that humor is perceived at the moment of realization of incongruity between a concept involved in a certain situation and the real objects thought to be in some relation to the concept. Since the main point of the theory is not the incongruity per se, but its realization and resolution (i.e., putting the objects in question into the real relation), it is often called the incongruity-resolution theory.

The most famous version of the incongruity theory is that of Kant, who claimed that the comic is an expectation that comes to nothing. French philosopher Henri Bergson attempted to perfect incongruity by reducing it to the ‘living’ and ‘mechanical.’ An incongruity like Bergson’s, in things juxtaposed simultaneously, is still in vogue. This is often debated against theories of the shifts in perspectives in humor; hence, the debate in the series ‘Humor Research’ between John Morreall and Robert Latta. Morreall presented mostly simultaneous juxtapositions, with Latta focusing on a ‘cognitive shift’ created by the sudden solution to some kind of problem.

Humor frequently contains an unexpected, often sudden, shift in perspective, which gets assimilated by the Incongruity Theory. Nabokov scholar Brian Boyd views the shift as from seriousness to play. Nearly anything can be the object of this perspective twist; it is, however, in the areas of human creativity (science and art being the varieties) that the shift results from ‘structure mapping’ (termed ‘bisociation’ by Hungarian British journalist Arthur Koestler) to create novel meanings. Koestler argues that humor results when two different frames of reference are set up and a collision is engineered between them.

The General Theory of Verbal Humor (GTVH) proposed by Victor Raskin and Salvatore Attardo in 1991 (an extension of the semantic script theory of humor, SSTH which Raskin proposed in 1985) identifies a semantic model capable of expressing incongruities between semantic scripts in verbal humor; this has been seen as an important recent development in the theory of laughter. The Computer Model of a Sense of Humor theory was suggested in 1992. Investigation of the general scheme of the information processing show a possibility of a specific malfunction, conditioned by the necessity of a quick deletion from consciousness of a false version.

This specific malfunction can be identified with a humorous effect. However, an essentially new ingredient, a role of timing, is added to a well known role of ambiguity. In biological systems, a sense of humor inevitably develops in the course of evolution, because its biological function consists in quickening the transmission of the processed information into consciousness and in a more effective use of brain resources. A realization of this algorithm in neural networks justifies naturally Spencer’s hypothesis on the mechanism of laughter: deletion of a false version corresponds to zeroing of some part of the neural network and excessive energy of neurons is thrown out to the motor cortex, arousing muscular contractions.

The theory gives equal treatment to humorous effects created by linguistic means (verbal humor), as well as created visually (caricature, clown performance), or by tickling. The theory explains naturally different susceptibility of people to humor, absence of humorous effect from a trite joke, a role of intonation in telling jokes, nervous laughter, etc. According to this theory, humor has a pure biological origin, while its social functions arose later. This conclusion corresponds to the known fact that already monkeys (as pointed by Charles Darwin) and even rats (as found recently) possess some semblance of a sense of humor.

The Ontic-Epistemic Theory of Humor (OETC) proposed by P. Marteinson asserts that laughter is a reaction to a cognitive impasse, a momentary epistemological difficulty, in which the subject perceives that Social Being itself suddenly appears no longer to be real in any factual or normative sense. When this occurs material reality, which is always factually true, is the only percept remaining in the mind at such a moment of comic perception. This theory posits, as in Bergson, that human beings accept as real both normative immaterial percepts, such as social identity, and noological factual percepts, but also that the individual subject normally blends the two together in perception in order to live by the assumption they are equally real.

The comic results from the perception that they are not. This same result arises in a number of paradigmatic cases: factual reality can be seen to conflict with and disprove social reality, which Marteinson calls Deculturation; alternatively, social reality can appear to contradict other elements of social reality, which he calls ‘Relativisation.’ Laughter, according to Marteinson, serves to reset and re-boot the faculty of social perception, which has been rendered non-functional by the comic situation: it anesthetizes the mind with its euphoria, and permits the forgetting of the comic stimulus, as well as the well-known function of communicating the humorous reaction to other members of society.

Evolutionary theorist Alastair Clarke advances this theory as ‘an evolutionary and cognitive explanation of how and why any individual finds anything funny. Effectively, it explains that humor occurs when the brain recognizes a pattern that surprises it, and that recognition of this sort is rewarded with the experience of the humorous response, an element of which is broadcast as laughter.’ The theory further identifies the importance of pattern recognition in human evolution: ‘An ability to recognize patterns instantly and unconsciously has proved a fundamental weapon in the cognitive arsenal of human beings. The humorous reward has encouraged the development of such faculties, leading to the unique perceptual and intellectual abilities of our species.’

However, evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller contends that, from an evolutionary perspective, humor would have had no survival value to early humans living in the savannas of Africa. He proposes that cultural aspects like humor, evolved by sexual selection. He argues that humor emerged as an indicator of other traits that were of survival value, such as human intelligence. In 2011, three researchers published a book that reviews previous theories of humor and many specific jokes.

They propose the theory that humor evolved because it strengthens the ability of the brain to find mistakes in active belief structures, that is, to detect mistaken reasoning. This is somewhat consistent with the sexual selection theory, because, humor would be a reliable indicator of an important survival trait: the ability to detect mistaken reasoning. However, the three researchers argue that humor is fundamentally important because it is the very mechanism that allows the human brain to excel at practical problem solving. Thus, according to them, humor did have survival value even for early humans, because it enhanced the neural circuitry needed to survive.

Misattribution is one theory of humor that describes an audience’s inability to identify exactly why they find a joke to be funny. The formal theory is attributed to Zillmann & Bryant in their 1980 article ‘Misattribution Theory of Tendentious Humor,’ published in the ‘Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.’ They derived the critical concepts of the theory from Sigmund Freud’s ‘Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious’ (note: from a Freudian perspective, wit is separate from humor), originally published in 1905. Freud declared people incapable of knowing exactly what it is they find amusing due to the complex nature of their conscious and subconscious minds. Jokes are crafted by comedians who have experience with causing laughter but who may themselves be blind to the actual cause of humor.

The benign violation theory (BVT) is developed by researchers A. Peter McGraw and Caleb Warren; it integrates seemingly disparate theories of humor to predict that humor occurs when three conditions are satisfied: 1) something threatens one’s sense of how the world ‘ought to be,’ 2) the threatening situation seems benign, and 3) a person sees both interpretations at the same time. From an evolutionary perspective, humorous violations likely originated as apparent physical threats, like those present in play fighting and tickling.

As humans evolved, the situations that elicit humor likely expanded from physical threats to other violations, including violations of personal dignity (e.g., slapstick, teasing), linguistic norms (e.g., puns, malapropisms), social norms (e.g., strange behaviors, risque jokes), and even moral norms (e.g., disrespectful behaviors). The BVT suggests that anything that threatens one’s sense of how the world ‘ought to be’ will be humorous, so long as the threatening situation also seems benign.

There is also more than one way a violation can seem benign. McGraw and Warren tested three contexts in the domain of moral violations. A violation can seem benign if one norm suggests something is wrong but another salient norm suggests it is acceptable. A violation can also seem benign when one is psychologically distant from the violation or is only weakly committed to the violated norm.

For example, McGraw and Warren find that most consumers were disgusted when they read about a church raffling off a Hummer SUV to recruit new members. However, many consumers were simultaneously amused. Consistent with the BVT, people who attended church were less likely to be amused than people who did not. Churchgoers are more committed to the belief that churches are sacred and, consequently, were less likely to consider the church’s behavior benign.

According to psychiatrist George Eman Vaillant’s (1977) categorization, humor is a level IV defense mechanism: overt expression of ideas and feelings (especially those that are unpleasant to focus on or too terrible to talk about) that gives pleasure to others. Humor, which explores the absurdity inherent in any event, enables someone to ‘call a spade a spade,’ while ‘wit’ is a form of displacement (level III). Wit refers to the serious or distressing in a humorous way, rather than disarming it; the thoughts remain distressing, but they are ‘skirted round’ by witticism.

One must have a sense of humor and a sense of seriousness to distinguish what is supposed to be taken literally or not. An even more keen sense is needed when humor is used to make a serious point. Psychologists have studied how humor is intended to be taken as having seriousness, as when court jesters used humor to convey serious information. Conversely, when humor is not intended to be taken seriously, bad taste in humor may cross a line after which it is taken seriously, though not intended.

Computer scientist Tony Veale, who takes a more formalized computational approach than Koestler, has written on the role of metaphor and metonymy (figures of speech)  in humor, using inspiration from Koestler as well as from Dedre Gentner’s theory of structure-mapping, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s theory of conceptual metaphor, and Mark Turner and Gilles Fauconnier’s theory of conceptual blending.

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