Why do we laugh?

One of the great fundamental questions related to humor is: “Why do we laugh?”  And most theories of why we laugh fall into one of three categories: creating a superiority effect, resolving a mental incongruity, or releasing tension.  We at NERHD propose that all previous theories of humor don’t answer the “Why do we laugh” question, but instead answer the question “What makes us laugh?”  Before addressing why do we laugh, we’ll summarize the other theories and describe their limitations in explaining humor.

Plato and Aristotle both believed that humor was derived from a desire for individuals to believe they were superior to others.  For instance, when we laugh at someone slipping on a banana peel, we are laughing at their foolishness for not seeing the banana peel.  For this reason, Plato and Aristotle were against the malicious nature of laughter, and believed, due to its negative influences, that humor should be restricted to slaves and foreigners, and not Greek citizens.  While superiority theory explains a lot of what what we find funny, it doesn’t explain why puns or irony are amusing.

Incongruity theory, espoused by Immanuel Kant, explains that humor in wordplay and irony comes from the “sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing”.  Ironically, his description of humor is similar to his writing style.  Nevertheless, incongruity theory is really an umbrella theory of other theories (Benign violation theory, Bergson’s Living and Mechanical Theory, Incongruity Resolution Theory, Bisociation theory, etc.) that explain how humor is elicited by the brain cognitively resolving a problem.  For instance, jokes that fit Incongruity theory are enthymemes – logical arguments that require an assumption.  Humor is produced from these arguments when that assumption is realized to be false.  Such as:

Two fish are in a tank.  One turns to the other and says “Do you know how to drive this?”

The argument is that “two fish are in a tank”, and we naturally assume that these fish are in an aquarium, but when the fish says “Do you know how to drive this?” we realize that the fish are actually in a military vehicle.  This disruption of our assumption is what creates humor.

However, incongruity theory, while explaining many types of jokes, as well as being contorted to cover up for humor derived from superiority, doesn’t explain the humor in many awkward shows.  For instance, this famous episode of the US version of the Office:

In this episode, the humor is not really coming from the fact that we think we’re better than Michael Scott (who promised a class of 3rd graders to pay for their college tuition, then reneged on that pledge).  The humor comes from the fact that the students are so excited about their college tuition paid for that they treat Michael Scott like a king, and he has to inform them (in the most painfully funny way) that he can’t pay for their tuition, and instead offers them batteries.

Freud offers the best explanation for why we would laugh as the high schoolers dance in celebration of receiving a college tuition which only the viewers know they won’t actually get:  Emotional release.  We see the stress of that moment for Michael as a mirror for our own individual stress, and the humor comes from the emotional relief of not actually being under that stress.

Freud’s Relief theory also explains why we’ll laugh at someone who hit his thumb with a hammer and just starts yelling “S***! F***! C*********!”  Proponents of superiority theory will argue that we laugh at this because we think we’re better than that person.  Proponents of incongruity theories would argue that this is funny because the person hit his or her thumb as if it were a nail.  But both of these explanations seem like trying to put a square peg in a round hole.

So, why do we laugh?

As we’ve described above, all the previous theories of humor seem to define some reasons of why we laugh but not others.  Evidence suggests that laughter is a conserved evolutionary process among apes (orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos all laugh), and laughter is even found in rats.

If laughter is so common among higher species, what is its function?  Some have argued that laughing is a form of communication, and may even be the precursor to human speech, co-evolving with bipedalism in humans.  In apes, laughter is associated with tickling which encourages social bonding and play behavior.  Since rats and apes are social animals, it is perhaps not surprising that behavior that promotes sociability is evolutionarily conserved.

One of the major flaws with previously mentioned theories of laughter is that they are all post hoc theories.  We see laughter and say, “You laughed at this joke because of incongruity, or because you needed a relief”.  These theories won’t take a joke on paper and tell you whether it will make an audience laugh.  The theories are handicapped by their lack of predictive power.  Furthermore, outside of tickling (which cannot be adequately explained by any of the theories described previously), there are many other examples of how these theories inadequately explain laughing phenomena:

  • Pretending to laugh at a joke that other people are laughing at
  • “Inside jokes” among friends
  • Why people are offended by joke

Why do people pretend to laugh at jokes they obviously don’t get?  No theory really explains this phenomenon, and it is generally believed that fake laughter is not real laughter, which is what the theories are meant to define.  If there are two types of laughter,  why is it that fake laughter can become real laughter?  Clearly there is a gap in the theories.

Why do we find inside jokes funny?  There are no good explanations for this, and as evidenced from this episode of Seinfeld, inside jokes go beyond simply being a product of superiority, incongruity, or relief:

Finally, why do people get offended by jokes?  In many cases jokes are well-constructed incongruities, or reflect superiority to another group, or even provide a stress relief.  Yet, people don’t find the jokes funny, and in many cases, people find the jokes to be abhorrent.  How can one explain why the joke is funny to one person and offensive to another?

The Humor Spectrum Theory

We at NERHD propose a new theory to explain “Why do we laugh?” that reflects the evolutionary origins of laughter.  Our theory proposes that laughter is a product of humor appreciation, and exists in order to create groups of like-minded humor appreciators.

The logical outcome of this theory is that individuals form the strongest bonds with people they find the most funny things in common.  Considering the significance of laughter in business, relationships, education, and health, it seems essential to identify the factors that create humor; furthermore, we will identify the factors that convert humor (an absolute concept) into laughter (a relative phenomena).

Our theory proposes that there are two factors that influence laughter, entanglement and engagement.  A humor-deliverer communicates information that is entangled cognitively, and the humor-receiver has to be sufficiently engaged to laugh at that information.  We propose that the incongruity, superiority, and relief theories help define what entangles information for humor, which is only one facet of how laughter is created.  The other facet, how engaged a humor-receiver is, can explain why people fake laugh for jokes, why inside jokes are funny, and why “offensive jokes” are not funny to some people.  Our research will focus specifically on what criteria define entanglement and promote engagement to create a more predictive theory of laughter.  If you are interested in helping, please visit our current research projects, or contact us.