The Psychology of Humor
Updated: Dec 6, 2021
Humor may seem simple but what we find funny depends on intelligence, sociology, emotion, and even evolution.
Comedy is a niche and often overlooked area of psychology. Laughter comes and goes, providing us with brief moments of joy. What we find funny can range from clever stand up routines to phallic images drawn in car dust. It can break an awkward situation and its misplacement can make a situation extremely awkward. So what goes on in our brain when it comes to humor?
Pointed Jokes and Relieving Tension
The prevailing theory of humor is that what we find funny are benign violations. These are harmless contradictions or threats to our expectations most often in the form of either incongruity or pointed jokes. They often both overlap but the latter are much more interesting and complex psychologically because pointed jokes are a means to an end.
They are used to make fun of, but also to relieve tension as a socially acceptable outlet for addressing sensitive topics such as sexuality, grievances, and oppression (often political). Frequently accompanying subjects such as these is the feeling of being subdued and, as Sigmund Freud wrote, repressed. In reference to pointed jokes he theorized in his book Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious that, "...the hearer of the joke laughs with the sum total of psychological energy that has been freed by the release of energy committed to inhibition."
Examples and reasoning of this are:
- Children learning about the reproductive system and laughing at certain anatomical images. They have no inherit comedic value except avoidance in being openly seen and discussed.
-Making fun of the traits of an opposing political candidate, despite knowing that they are only human, because we feel threatened by their policies or actions (and our audience holds similar views).
-Stand up routines on stealing sugar while growing up in South Africa where sweets were scarce or impressions of terrorists in Afghanistan when war has become common place. These routines sell due to relatability with their audiences but may not get the same reaction in a modern western community.
For a joke to 'land' depends greatly on the audience both as a means to release tension and as a way unite us. Jokes provide a sense of unity and agreement on a topic which we exhibit in the form of
Comedy and laughter are often seen as complimentary, but how we respond to a joke has a lot less to do with what is being said and a lot more to do with who we are with. Alone, we show our joy from something by breathing air out of our nose but if we are in a group we intermittently vibrate our vocal chords. It is considered the best medicine because it triggers 'feel-good' endorphins in our brain that can improve bloodflower, reduce anxiety, and enhance our mood. Yet, if we laugh too much we are considered crazy (and have to carry a card around with us)? Hyenas making the same noise do so in times of heavy stress, so why do we laugh at something we find funny?
If you try watching Friends or any Disney Channel show without the laugh track, the jokes are more cringe and tend to fall flat. Put the sound back in and we know exactly when to laugh and feel less alone while doing so, increasing our enjoyment. This is because laughing is an audible indication of pleasure, understanding, and agreement with what is being said. It brings us together because it conveys that we are all in a consensus and have similar world views. In fact, when laughing with a group we subconsciously look at the person we feel closest to (Try it for yourself).
The harder pill to swallow is that laughter is an accordance with the joke being made. It is a non-verbal way to say "Yes, I can understand that." If we are going to make a political joke it is best to know the color of the county we are in. If the audience feels favorably about the topic of abuse the comedian may not be allowed back or worse.
Now think about if these jokes are made at the expense of someone in particular. We may be laughing at clever wordplay or understanding, but what they hear is an endorsement of ridicule. Fortunately, not laughing at something or simply saying "what?" to prompt an explanation are two easy and powerful deterrents to offensive comments.
Intelligence and Attraction
It is well known that humor plays an important role in flirting and attraction but to understand why, we need to take an evolutionary perspective. In On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin theorized that when reproducing, the sex that invests more in the offspring will be more particular in choosing a mate. This points to why men are often attracted to surface level and momentarily satisfying traits, while woman pay more attention to qualities that will be better off for them and their children. A sense of humor conveys strong 'fatherly' qualities like intellect, creativity, and social prowess.
Despite this correlation between intelligence and humor we rarely make comparisons between men like Albert Einstein and Charlie Chaplin. Given their differences in careers we are quick to assume disparities in intellect as well. However, knowledge and profession are more relative to experience and interest than smarts. At the least, comedians must be clever, but the more successful ones have an acute sense of timing. As mentioned earlier, they also need a strong understanding of social trends and have the emotional intelligence to play off their audience’s feelings towards their content. Was Einstein known for doing all of that? No, but Chaplin was a master at it.
There is also a misconception that men have a stronger comedic skill than woman, but this can be explained away by evolution as well. On average, men simply make more jokes because their anticipated mate is more receptive to them. Women have less of a need to gain attention through humor while men are judged more critically for comedic mistakes.
But above all, comedy is about having fun and bringing us together. We must also remember that there is more to laughing than just enjoyment and we shouldn't do it at the expense of anyone else. I'm sure we all know jokes like this and I would love to hear them in the comments below. Thanks for reading, and be sure to subscribe for more articles on psychology and mental health!