The Science of Being Funny

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Laughter is contagious, and there are a lot of reasons why we laugh. What you may not know is that there are several theories that attempt to explain why and when certain things are funny. It may sound like a joke, but there really is a science behind being funny. Here are the five most common theories behind humor.

Superiority Theory

The superiority theory has been around since the 20th century, but the ideas that founded it had been dominant for two millennia before that. It states that our laughter is a tool to express our superiority, either over other individuals around us or over a previous state of ourselves. While this theory does not explain every reason for laughter, it speaks of the shame and embarrassment people may feel while being laughed at. The person laughing will feel superior to the person they are laughing at, and the negative feelings associated with being laughed at make the subject feel inferior.

While there are contemporary theorists who still agree with this theory, it began to lose its standing in the 18th century as a result of Francis Hutcheson’s critiques. He argued that feelings of inferiority are neither necessary nor sufficient for laughter. By this, he means that superiority alone cannot induce laughter, nor is it needed for an individual to find something funny. Let’s take a look at some examples. One of the biggest experiences that reduce the credibility of the superiority theory is that we often laugh at things that do not involve any comparison to others, such as when we read something humorous. In this sense, superiority is not necessary. There are also many situations in which we may feel superior to a human or other animal, but it does not cause us to laugh. A couple examples include encountering a beggar on the street (superiority without humor) as well as engaging with domesticated animals such as dogs and cats (superior, but still often without humor).

Relief Theory

The relief theory was an explanation for laughter that originated in the 18th century. It describes laughter as a sort of pressure release for the body. In those times, it was thought that laughter was a way to release animal spirits that had built up in the nerves. In modern times, we know that nerves actually carry electrical impulses and not animal spirits, but the main idea is still valid. Contemporary theorists standing behind the relief theory propose that laughter relieves pent-up nervous energy from our systems and brings us a sense of calmness and relief.

The modern explanations of this theory state that laughter can be a way to relieve pent up emotions. This theory explains why people may laugh when they are extremely stressed, upset, or worried. It is a way to relieve the tension that builds up in the body as a result of those emotions. Laughter may also result in response to emotions that become unneeded. For example, when you hear a strange noise outside and you begin to feel fear, you may laugh when you realize that it was just a raccoon, as this is the best way for your body to relieve the pressure behind the unnecessary fear.

Incongruity Theory

The incongruity theory of laughter also came about in the 18th century. It describes laughter as the response to perceiving something to be incongruous. Many philosophers and psychologists became proponents of this theory, including the well known Immanuel Kant. This is one of the most dominant theories still in modern times.

To explain this theory in clearer terms, it says that laughter results when we experience things that violate patterns and expectations. The most common way for comedians to achieve this is to set their audience up with a certain expectation, and then completely deviate from that expectation. The surprise and disappointment in this scenario leads to laughter.  You can view this as the set up and the punch line, one of the most common ways to create humor. Following the incongruity theory, the set up creates a certain expectation in the audience, and the punch line is what violates the expectation.

Other theorists take the incongruity theory to another level, and discuss that it is not the incongruity itself that is humorous, but rather the resolution of incongruity that leads to laughter. This is akin to the concept of ‘getting’ a joke. Many jokes become funny because of a play on words,, or the manipulation of a word’s meaning. If you do not resolve the incongruity between the beginning and end of a joke, then it cannot be funny. It is only when you rethink the first half of the joke and resolve the incongruity, aka you ‘get’ the joke, that laughter results.

laughing girl

Kick of the Discovery Theory

The kick of the discovery theory relates to laughter resulting from a shift in perception. The shock and surprise that we feel when this occurs is the trigger for laughter. When our thinking naturally flows in one direction with the beginning of a joke, and then it suddenly shifts with the ending, the surprise we feel is released as laughter and we feel very positively. For example, when asked the question “what is brown and sticky”, the natural course for our brain to go is to think of things that are both brown in colour and sticky in texture. Our perception here is a logical one. When the answer to that question is “a stick”, our perception of the meaning of sticky suddenly shifts. Of course, a stick is stick-like, and so the answer makes perfect sense and simultaneously causes us to laugh at the unexpected resolution.

Benign Violations Theory

The benign violations theory states that humor and laughter result from two necessary conditions. The first is that there needs to be some sort of norm violation. This norm can be a moral norm, a social norm, or even a physical norm. The second condition that needs to be met is the presence of a safe context that allows us to laugh at this norm violation. When we experience both of these things simultaneously, humor is allowed to exist. In this sense, the violation of our norms is not harmful, and is therefore benign.

If you’re interested in exploring your own ideas of humor, check out the House of Comedy.