Why do we laugh? Exploring the psychology behind what we find funny, and why.

Two men are on opposite sides of a river. The first man shouts: “How do I get to the other side?” The second man shouts back: “You are on the other side!”

Laughing couple
Have you ever wondered why we laugh?

Laughter is a human universal, found in all cultures, everywhere, in all times. Yet there is no clear reason why we get a burst of joy when something is funny, and even after centuries of trying, we can’t precisely define what “funny” is. We can understand jokes but usually can’t explain what it is about them that makes us laugh. Whenever we can, they aren’t as funny. All this is very strange. How can we understand and not understand something at the same time?

Thinkers throughout history have occasionally addressed the question of what we find funny and why, yet surprisingly little given the ubiquity of the experience. Excavating the answers of the past is also hampered by the fog surrounding the concept, and even the question itself is elusive. For example:

What is funny?

What is funny?

What is funny?

Perhaps we could start with the dictionary, but there we find various circular restatements such as, “the quality of being amusing” which leads us nowhere at all. The word itself seems to have started as a colloquialism used to distinguish “funny-peculiar” from “funny haha”. The “haha” is what we are looking for, but even in the esteemed OED, that’s where the definition ends.

And so the explanations we distil from the past end up aimed at a shadowy variety of targets. Wit, humour, laughter, irony, jokes, the comic, the ridiculous – the terms used are all thereabouts, but no-one seems bold enough to say exactly what “funny” is. It seems, like Russell said of the universe, that funny is “just there, and that’s all”.

We may be standing of the shoulders of crouching giants, but let’s proceed.

Early theories

The earliest theory of humour originates with the Ancient Greeks, who saw scorn as the central element – that moments provoking laughter are where we recognise our superiority to other people, especially through their misfortunes, or perhaps a former version of ourselves.

The spoken form merely plays out that superiority in words. “Wit”, wrote Aristotle, “is educated insolence.” He also articulated what became the benign violation theory 2350 years later: “The ridiculous is a mistake or unseemliness that is not painful or destructive.”

Cicero, the foremost orator of Ancient Rome, extended the superiority theory and also hinted at something deeper. “The most common kind of joke” he wrote in On the Orator, “is that in which we expect one thing, and another is said; here our disappointed expectation makes us laugh.” Here is perhaps the first inkling of what became the incongruity theory.

From Cicero until modern times, the only philosopher with anything positive to say about humour was Thomas Aquinas: “Those words and deeds in which nothing is sought beyond the soul’s pleasure are called playful or humorous, and it is necessary to make use of them at times for solace of the soul.” Aquinas believed that humour’s mental play was a virtue that brought a “happy cast of mind”, and he saw its absence as a vice.

In Leviathan (1651), Hobbes reverted to the superiority theory, saying that laughter arose “from sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmities of others, or with our own formerly.”

Kant had a similarly dark view: “How could a delusive expectation gratify?” he asked, yet implicitly followed Aquinas in calling jokes “the play of thought”. Kant also seemed to side with the incongruity theory by locating humour in a discrepancy between expectations and experience.

Schopenhauer thought much the same, noting that humour comes from the sudden clash between a concept and a perception. While Kant drew incongruity into play, Schopenhauer reintroduced superiority: “the laugh of scorn announces with triumph to the baffled adversary how incongruous were the conceptions he cherished with the reality which is now revealing itself to him”.

Later, Søren Kierkegaard provided the most elevated theory of humour. He also highlighted the disparity between expectation and experience, but went much further while discussing his three spheres of existence.

As irony marks the boundary between the aesthetic and the ethical spheres, humour demarcates the ethical and religious, making humour “the last stage of existential awareness before faith” (1846). In fact, Kierkegaard held that the highest and deepest kind of humour is rooted in a religious worldview, and that “Christianity is the most humorous view of life in world-history”.

Kierkegaard derived his surprising conclusion from what historian Tom Holland has called “the paradoxes that are the rocket-fuel of Christianity”. He grants humour such an elevated place because of its links with the key existential elements of paradox and contradiction:

The tragic and the comic are the same, in so far as both are based on contradiction; but the tragic is the suffering contradiction, the comical, the painless contradiction… The comic apprehension evokes the contradiction or makes it manifest by having in mind the way out, which is why the contradiction is painless.

It is amusing to read that the authors of the benign violation theory thought they were coming up with something new, because not only did we find it in Aristotle, but with his idea of the “painless contradiction” we find it in Kierkegaard too.

In On Wit and Humour (1819), William Hazlitt was another whose perspective on humour took an existential turn:

Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps, for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are and what they ought to be. We weep at what thwarts or exceeds our desires in serious matters; we laugh at what only disappoints our expectations in trifles. We shed tears from sympathy with that which is unreasonable and unnecessary, the absurdity of which provokes our spleen or mirth, rather than any serious reflections on it. To explain the nature of laughter and tears is to account for the condition of human life; for it is in a manner compounded of these two! It is a tragedy or a comedy — sad or merry, as it happens.

In this passage we find hints of incongruity theory and later Hazlitt stated it clearly: the mind produces laughter after “surprise or contrast … before it has time to reconcile its belief to contrary appearances.”

And when it comes to the thoughts of the major philosophers on humour, that’s about it. They only ever considered humour as a side note when discussing something else and made no attempt to define a universal law of precisely what funny is.

It was not until 1709 that an essay from Lord Shaftesbury even used the term “humour” in this sense of “something funny”. Here Shaftesbury introduced the idea that jokes release something within us that regular life suppresses:

The natural free spirits of ingenious men, if imprisoned or controlled, will find out other ways of motion to relieve themselves in their constraint; and whether it be in burlesque, mimicry, or buffoonery, they will be glad at any rate to vent themselves, and be revenged upon their constrainers.

John Dewey (1894) pursued a similar idea of release after constraint. Laughter, he wrote, “marks the ending … of a period of suspense, or expectation.” In Shaftesbury and Dewey, we find a watershed moment: a view of humour that is starting to emerge from the literary or the philosophical into the mental apparatus itself. Once there it would fall under the glare of science, and the man who definitively dragged it there was Sigmund Freud. His ideas were not entirely new, but they were at least dressed up in the physiological terms of his day.

Enter Sigmund Freud

In his Jokes and their Relationship to the Unconscious (1905), Freud decreed that laughter releases nervous energy that was summoned for an abandoned psychological task, such as suppressing emotions. With the punchline, the summoned energy is shown to be unnecessary, so it is released as laughter. Here we have a first attempt at a theory which both identifies the source of humour and explains its physical expression.

As with almost everything Freud wrote, however, we can thank him for starting the conversation while dismissing what he said. Freud was working with the “hydraulic” picture of the nervous system, ascendent at the time, which imagined the mind as channels and compartments with areas of pressure and release. That was a convenient image to a newly industrial age, just as modern models of the mind as a software / hardware, or interconnected networks reflect ours.

Freud’s ideas became the Relief Theory.

Once the Freud’s lustre began to fade and psychology took a more cognitive approach, the Incongruity Theory became predominant: that what we find funny is the collision between two frames of reference.

The theory later received an upgrade from writers such as Thomas Schultz (1976) and Jerry Suls (1972) who claimed that what we find funny is not the incongruity itself, but its resolution. When we “get” a joke, we fit the anomaly into a new viewpoint. In other words, a punchline only makes sense after reinterpreting what came before it. Yet even with these modifications, the theory still falls short because there are many examples of incongruities that are not funny.

When our mental patterns and expectations are violated, we may well feel fear, disgust, or anger and not amusement. Meanwhile John Morreall (1987) argues that several aesthetic categories – the grotesque, the macabre, the horrible, the bizarre, and the fantastic – involve a non-humorous enjoyment of some violation of our mental patterns and expectations. In this observation lies an interesting clue: we enjoy incongruity, but it is not necessarily funny.

Perhaps then humour is a subset of incongruity – but what exactly defines that category remains to be found.

The advent of neuroscience

After the incongruity approach began to flounder, psychologists turned to more scientific ideas and specifically the prestigious tools of neuroscience and evolutionary theory. To do so they began with the idea that humour was an important natural function derived from play – which, ironically, had started eight centuries earlier with Thomas Aquinas.

During play, children and young animals practise skills that they will need in later life. Lion cubs go through actions of hunting, just as young boys might play by chasing, throwing or digging. The actions of play also tend to be intense and exaggerated versions of the adult activity.

As Marek Spinka (2001) observed, young monkeys leap not just between branches, but from trees into rivers. Children not only run, but skip, dive, and turn cartwheels. Usually this is explained away as youthful vigour, but what children are doing is vital for development: they are testing and extending the range of their abilities and learning to confront the unexpected. In terms of systems theory, children at play are operating at the creative border between order and chaos. Children repeatedly fall over, get lost, become scared, find something, discard it – all of which is turning the unknown into skills and knowledge. And all the while they are repeatedly laughing – especially at moments of discovery or triumph – when chaos becomes new order.

Humour seems to be the same kind of activity, yet moved into the adult realm of abstract thought. We enjoy violating mental patterns, just as the extravagances of play violate physical patterns.

Dad, I’m hungry.

Hi Hungry, I’m Dad.

Here we have the classic Dad joke. The father, too old to launch a somersault from the couch, has moved into flipping mental categories. His play has become mental. And though all he receives in return is a chorus of groans, he can’t seem to help doing it at every turn. The mental play of humour can seem almost compulsive: it is not for the reaction or approval, but for its own sake, just as children never need a reason to play. Humour looks to push the boundaries of thought and social interaction just as children’s play turns regular motion into running, tumbling and diving.

We can see the patterns of humour more clearly if we compare like for like. For example, serious writing or conversation with comedy. As in H. P. Grice’s five rules of conversation (1971), or in any manual of essay writing, you will find the values of brevity, clarity, truth and logic – all geared towards the clear transfer of accurate information.

Meanwhile in the writing of a comic master such as P.G. Wodehouse or Jerome K. Jerome, almost every paragraph deliberately violates these rules. There will be tortured, recursive descriptions of something mundane, like the decision to get out of bed, or obscure and ambiguous phrases in place of something simple, like “the aged relative” for “aunt”, or “get outside a pair of kippers” for “eat breakfast”. Yet somehow the writing still remains easily readable, in fact, it may be even more readable than the serious writing it parodies.

Comic writing violates the rules while seeming to keep them. It does the wrong thing but in precisely the right way, like stumbling with a platter of drinks but somehow rolling back into balance and never spilling a drop: a detour into chaos that brings greater order.

The theorists who see humour as mental play have sought to trace its origins by studying similar behaviour in other primates. Humans signal a readiness for playful interaction by smiling and laughing, and we find similar play signals in chimpanzees and gorillas. Their play, as in other mammals, is usually pseudo-aggressive activity such as chasing, wrestling, biting, and tickling. Young children are very similar, in fact, their play tends to skirt close to real aggression and often tips over – that’s when the play ends in tears and adults intervene. The equivalent for humour is the joke that sparks an email from HR or gets the comedian cancelled: the violation was too severe, the departure into chaos too deep.

Evolutionary psychologists believe that all play ultimately derives from mock-aggression (Aldis 1975; Panksepp 1993), and here we can also find the origin of sport. Mock-aggressive play relies on shared signals assuring participants that the activity is not real aggression. Gorillas and chimpanzees use a variant of bared teeth that in humans is called “smiling”. People may signal that a transgressive comment is not to be taken seriously with the hint of a smile.

This social pattern is so well established that now it is possible to transgress the pattern itself by saying something outrageous without the play signal – the deadpan delivery. Here we find a risky manoeuvre that may either heighten the joke or invite another email from HR.

The relaxed mouth of laughter similarly appears to derive from the mouth in real aggression that is tense and prepared to bite. Meanwhile the sound of laughter may have evolved from the roar of imminent combat. Just as jokes tweak the patterns of usual discourse, play signals are riffs on the posture of aggression that announce “this is not real fighting”. Chimps and gorillas display them during rough-and-tumble play, and intrepid researchers can elicit them by tickling (Andrew 1963).

The hypothesis that laughter evolved as a play signal explains the link between humour and its bodily expression. A battle roar with bared teeth became the softer ululation of laughter. The muscles that tense for combat actually convulse and become limp with laughter, while the deep breathing becomes gasps – far from being ready to fight, the stricken primate is rolling on the forest floor. The posture is infectious, which explains why laughter is overwhelmingly social: we are around thirty times more likely to laugh with others than when alone (Provine 2000). We can discern echoes of the mock aggression of humour in the friendly punch on the arm, back slap or even bear-tackle – all of which are acceptable responses to a joke among men, but would be wildly out of place when greeting a superior at work, or an aged relative.

The Benign Violation Theory

Emerging from ideas contained in the play and incongruity theories is today’s most prominent explanation for humour, the Benign Violation Theory: that what is funny is something that is perceived to violate a norm, but harmlessly. The violation is a departure from the usual pattern, while that pattern (the norm) could be any of the spheres of human experience: social (e.g. flatulence), linguistic (e.g. puns), religious (e.g. blasphemies), moral (insults), and so on.

At first it seems hard to explain why benign violations would produce such a burst of pleasure, but that’s where evolutionary theory steps in. The selection pressures for early humans largely occurred in the life of a close-knit group. Together they would hunt, gather, eat, sleep and relax, and their survival hinged on how well they functioned as a unit in a dangerous environment, while still permitting competition between members for status and sexual partners. Inevitably there was friction from within and threats from without, and the groups that thrived would not fracture under these forces but somehow harness them to grow stronger.

One means of achieving this was finding moments when things go wrong a joyful bonding experience. Say the hunter who was trying to spear a fish instead fell into the waterhole. One outcome could be rage, frustration and blame, leading to conflict. The other could be laughter, and the groups that evolved the latter were more likely to prosper and propagate.

Here we have the ghosts of Freud’s Relief Theory returning but at the level of the group, since the laughter could act as an escape valve for stress on members who would have to bond with each other or die. The stress would be particularly acute for groups who lived on the very edge of violence – for example, bands of hunters and warriors who would be almost exclusively men. To work as a lethal team in a ferocious world they would need something to smooth over their inevitable differences, rivalries and mishaps. To be permanently relaxed and carefree might be one solution evolution could try, but how then to remain primed for battle with another tribe or ready for the rigours of the hunt? How to showcase the genetic best of the group for the females to select? Far better to have frequent competition between members but with a failsafe that released the pressure and deepened the group’s bonding.

Laughter at benign violations would prove to the group that interactions between members are safe and relaxed and stop inevitable frictions from turning violent. In fact, deliberate benign violations would inoculate the group against seeing a real violation as an existential threat.

Imagine a group where all behaviour occurs along the strictest lines, and one day a fight breaks out between rivals. Since the fight is such a total departure from normal behaviour, it would seem impossible for the two rivals to work together ever again. One would surely have to die, and the group loses a valuable member. In another group, there is constant banter and roughhousing. Not only are the members training for the real life and death struggles of the wider world, but the fight that goes too far can now be absorbed as merely that, “too far”, rather than a threat that is entirely new and menacingly different. Groups that mastered this skill of competitive interaction could thrive, and their vital glue was laughter. Armed, on edge, needing to work together or starve, they would definitely benefit from finding non-fatal mishaps funny rather than a route to disunity and intragroup violence.

It is also here that benign violation manages to incorporate elements of the superiority theory, the difference being that the laughter now has evolutionary purpose.

While all this might seem to be an irrelevant recourse to an imagined past, we can still see hints of these ancient processes among groups of men today.

In football and cricket clubs we have vague echoes of the primal hunting party or warband, and here there are curious behaviours that can seem almost alien to the sanitised protocols of wider society. Teammates happily call each other names that would spark an instant fight if applied to an outsider.

The most common descriptor in Australian football clubs is the word usually declared the most vile of the English language. For individual names, a team picks out the most salient characteristic of a member, gives it a negative spin and uses it as their nickname. Thus a player with a big nose may be called the Schnozzenator, or the overly timid member is ironically called Rowdy. Roughhousing as wrestling, towel-flicking and headlocks are routine.

TV cameras recently installed inside AFL rooms have picked up incidents that have had coaches squirming to explain what appears to be obvious sexual assault. Clubs have had to issue gushing apologies for racist nicknames and submit to sensitivity training. None of the participants in the drama appear to realise that these groups of men are re-enacting rituals that date back well before recorded time, perhaps even to the evolutionary days of tree-dwelling primates.

Actions that would certainly provoke a fight with an outsider are delivered according to an ancient Darwinian decree that members must test and prove their membership, as well as continuing to compete for status while remaining a team. By making violations and absorbing them, the group is showcasing their buffer against internal violence, and thereby signalling unity to all members.

Such playful aggression, especially among groups of men, has often met scandalised horror whenever it has seeped into the view of the wider community. The TV viewer seeing one of their favourite players grope another is baffled, and the embarrassed player cannot explain beyond “it was a joke”. He was following the steps of an ancient dance he never knew he knew.

Meanwhile media pundits persistently fail to realise that racist or sexist jokes almost always fail to entail the hostility of real racism or sexism. From a psychological perspective, joke’s violation is necessarily benign, or quite simply, it would not be a joke.

Just as the bizarre antics of footballers behind closed doors form part of their martial glue, offensive jokes emerged when different groups came into close competitive contact and may have even acted to diffuse the threat of real conflict. When a football team enshrines a differentiating feature as a nickname, far from ostracising the member for that feature, they are signalling their acceptance of that member and showcasing their overall unity. “Here we have all kinds”, says the nickname, “We can take even the very thing about you might make you hard to accept. We can even flaunt it! What could possibly come between us now?”

To the outsider, the nicknames can appear truly outrageous. The indigenous player is called “Chimp”, the player whose mother comes to watch is called “Motherf-”, or with the younger girlfriend, “Kiddy Fiddler”. Players will almost never discern the deeper psychology at work – they simply find the names funny.

Benign Violation unites the key elements of the play, relief, incongruity and superiority theories and places them within the context of evolution, and even has claim to experimental evidence.

One example comes from eliciting laughter-like responses in mice. The mouse’s most vulnerable area is the belly – it is here that vital organs can be exposed and torn by the teeth or talons of a predator. But if this violation is done benignly – by tickling – the mouse gives all the appearance of pleasure and laughter. Mice and humans may have separated in the evolutionary line around 80 million of years ago, yet humans show precisely the same response in their most vulnerable areas.

Now perhaps we can trace the story in vague outline. Humour began as a physiological response to a benign violation, which then became more complex as mammals evolved into humans. Humour was now produced by the benign violation of mental patterns, and evolution harnessed this quality to enhance unity and resilience in tribal groups.

So that’s what we can say about humour in general, but the story is far from over. What kind of violation is funny? How benign does it need to be? Will any violation do? Without answering questions such as these, Benign Violation Theory will be stuck back at the beginning without anything much to tell us at all. We will tackle the question of precisely what violation makes something funny in part two.

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