What’s So Funny?
The Psychology of Humor
Laughter is the best medicine, so the saying goes. And, indeed, we can all agree that humor can lighten moods and lift us out of gravitas, even if just offering temporary relief. More importantly, humor serves as an agent of human bonding. Laughter punctuates groups of people on social outings as they strive to connect to one another through humorous commonalities, best discussed within a soft blanket of humor. Humor can be observed when a parent endeavor to entertain a child; there’s nothing sweeter than a child’s laughter. Giggles and guffaws come into play in courtship, when people woo one another with wit and banter.
If the laughter happening all around us is any indication, it could be argued that humor might just be one of the very fundamentals of human interactions and relations.
But figuring out why people laugh—what is considered funny—is much trickier to pinpoint.
Recently, there has been a slew of psychological studies on the elements of humor and how it works. According to the latest sources where scientists have tested subjects for their reactions, there is now a pretty good general explanation for what we think is funny. Apparently, we find things that are unexpected or incongruent hilarious. This means that we laugh when what happens does not take place according to what we think will happen, but rather deviates from the norm. We also laugh when what we might expect to find within certain categories or situations is disrupted by something that is out of place. In the most basic of situations researched, people were prone to chuckle if they went to lift something they assumed was light and it turned out to be heavy. On the other hand, it wasn’t quite as funny to people if something turned out to be much lighter than expected.
But this formula for humor has a major qualification. The unexpected has to be what is called a benign violation, meaning that it fails to be what we expect, but it is also not harmful or threatening. So, for example, we don’t expect to be hit in the head by a baseball when watching a ball game, and it’s doubtful that we would find it hilarious if we did (though some watching might get a laugh, as long as no one was actually injured). At the same time, not everything that is unexpected yet benign (or even good) is funny. We may not expect to hit a jackpot at the casino, but that’s not considered funny, either. So while we might be made uncomfortable, things that are funny go outside normal experiences, creating some kind of puzzling or ridiculous play on our expectations, but are ultimately safe.
Still, this hardly accounts for the huge range of subjects, situations, comments, attitudes, and so on, that people find funny, which has led to numerous substudies and subcategories within this developing field of inquiry. Researchers are now describing certain characteristics that factor into humor. For example, there’s added value to a joke if the unexpected punch line also requires a bit of mental gymnastics, a couple of steps in figuring out what the punch line is, which accounts for the enduring popularity of puns. Sudden twists can be found in what are called “garden path jokes,” as in the very short example, “Should someone stir his coffee with his right or left hand? Neither, he should stir his coffee with a spoon!” (Ba da bum). And we tend to find a lot of humor in things that draw attention to real situations and observations from our lives, though exaggerated for our entertainment. This humor reflects things we believe to be true, but changes the perspective so that the truth is remarked upon in satirical or candid ways. The humorous incongruity comes when looking at a situation from a different vantage point, as found in this joke: “After her 12th child, Martha ran out of names to call her husband.”
The numerous paths of humor spiral out from there; but the overall message is that the psychology of humor is as complicated as human themselves. There is no exact formula for funny, only endless variations on a theme.
Katherine Adams lives and works in Brooklyn, New York, where she is a professional writer and speaker.