For some scholars, the study of humor is no laughing matter
If you’re an ordinary adult, you laugh around 20 times a day. And you probably haven’t given much thought to why the things you laugh at are funny. In fact, you might even think that analyzing humor is the best way to destroy it.
That’s what E.B. White thought. He said, “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”
He was correct in at least one those claims. Some scientists are interested in what makes things funny, and they’ve developed some pretty sophisticated explanations. Here are five of the major scientific theories of humor. Read with caution, as this article could kill your sense of humor.
The Relief Theory
The relief theory says that humor and laughter work as a pressure valve for releasing excess or unnecessary energy. Sigmund Freud was a proponent of the relief theory. He believed laughter is the release of either psychic energy that is normally used, in typical Freudian fashion, to repress feelings or psychic or emotional energy that was summoned in response to a stimulus but was then determined to be unnecessary.
The Arousal Theory
The arousal theory rejects the relief theory’s idea that humor involves the release of excess or unnecessary energy. Instead, it builds on the idea that the right level of physiological arousal causes subjective pleasure. Low levels of arousal are not enough to induce pleasure, and too high of levels are unpleasant. But there is a sweet spot that people enjoy. People laugh, according to the theory, when they are aroused to the point of discomfort (a joke setup) and then something (a punchline) causes their arousal level to suddenly drop into the sweet spot.
The Superiority Theory
The superiority theory says that aggression is at the core of all humor. Early theorists claimed humor was intertwined with actual aggression, but Charles Gruner, a contemporary advocate of the perspective, says humor is not real aggression. Rather, it’s a playful form of it rooted in an evolutionary context of competition. People find humor in others’ plights, when they assert their superiority over others, or when they simply outwit someone else, he says.
The Incongruity Theory
The incongruity theory is probably the most popular theory of humor today. It says the perception some sort of incongruity is necessary for thinking something is humorous. People laugh, for instance, when they experience something that’s surprising, atypical, or a violation or departure from the way they think things should be. Consider this joke about two fish in a tank. One says to the other, “You man the guns. I’ll drive.” We expect the fish to be in a fish tank, so their being in a combat vehicle is slightly humorous.
One shortcoming of incongruity theory is that incongruity alone isn’t enough to explain humor. A fish driving a tank may be funny because its incongruous, but some incongruous things aren’t funny, such as tragic accidents.
The Benign Violation Theory
The benign violation theory is the newest theory out there. It incorporates elements from some of the other theories, particularly incongruity and superiority, into one unifying one. It says people laugh when three things happen. First, there must be a violation of some norm or sense of how the world ought to be. Second, the person must judge the violation as playful, non-serious, or non-threatening. Third, the judgment that something is a violation and that it’s benign must occur simultaneously.
To get a better grasp of benign violation theory, think about malapropisms. They violate our linguistic norms, but they are not threatening. And they are almost always funny. Now think about sexist jokes. They violate our norms of gender equality, and they are probably funniest to sexists because sexists are most likely to see the violation as benign.
Now that you know some of the most famous theories of humor, keep them to yourself. Don’t be the buzzkill explaining the joke.