I believe that humour is an important part of many relationships, and sadly, its importance is often overlooked. Many great friendships are built on humour, and humour can also help break the ice between new acquaintances. You need look no further than schoolchildren to see the importance of humour in social settings. Apart from informal settings, humour also has a place in formal settings – it reduces stress and builds rapport. Furthermore, aside from humour’s immediate effect of mirth, it is also a good indicator of other qualities present in a relationship: trust, authenticity and understanding.
In this 2-part post, I will explore the following questions:
- What makes something funny?
- What is the role of humour?
- How can we employ humour more effectively in our relationships?
By discussing answers to these questions, I hope to demonstrate the significance of humour in our relationships and more practically, the implications humour’s significance has on how we should act. This first part of the 2-part series will be giving more focus onto the philosophical backdrop of humour, while the second part will be contextualising and discussing practical applications of the first part.
What makes something funny? - Theories of humour
For sake of clarity, let’s first get some basic definitions out of the way. Finding something funny is the same as finding something humorous. However, finding something funny is distinct from laughter. While the two tend to be linked – if I find something funny, I tend to laugh – they are fundamentally different. Laughter, the act of laughing, is a behaviour, while finding something funny is merely a state of mind. The two are linked in the same way as sadness is to crying. I do not cry every time I am sad, but when I do cry, it is usually a good indicator that I am sad. However, there are also scenarios where I cry not because I am sad, but perhaps instead, I ate an incredibly spicy chili or heard a gut-busting joke. Likewise, it would make more sense to first tackle what makes something funny, before analysing how humour is elicited.
Theories of humour are theories that predict what we will find funny. These are theories in the same way that scientific laws are theories, predicting how the natural world behaves. Humour theories tend to put forth a set of conditions that when met, predict humour. This is to say that humour theories do not try to explain what humour is (an emotion? a state of mind? this is beyond the scope of this post), and instead try to explain what is humorous, i.e. why is something humorous. I will explore three theories of humour that I think are relevant in explaining humour in today’s context. Note that most theories treat humour and laughter as synonymous (despite the distinction I have outlined earlier) for simplicity’s sake. This is because humour theory is largely philosophical or psychological field, while laughter is a largely social phenomenon. As such, humour theorists tend not to tackle the nuance of laughter as it is out of their scope of study, instead opting for the simplification of equating laughter with humour. This is a reasonable simplification that we can allow for the sake of discussion but will discard in our later analysis of laughter itself.
Finally, before diving into a discussion of the theories proper, it will be useful to know what necessary and sufficient conditions entail as they provide a formal method to evaluate the theories. The notion of necessary and sufficient comes from logic. If this is your first time learning these concepts, they may take some time to digest as we are usually not exposed to logic at this level in our lives, so don’t worry. If you don’t want to go through with understanding these concepts, you can just take my word that necessity and sufficiency are important qualities for a condition (that predicts a phenomena) to fulfil and skip past the next paragraph.
For a condition C and a phenomena P, if we say “If C, then P”, we are saying that C is a sufficient condition for P – the condition C alone is sufficient to predict P. Sufficiency does not mean necessity – P can also be due to other sufficient conditions. On the other hand, if we say “Only if C, then P”, we are saying that C is a necessary condition for P – only if C is satisfied can P occur, and without C, P cannot occur. This is not to say that C is sufficient for P – C alone can be insufficient for P as other necessary conditions may be needed for P to occur. The discussion of necessity and sufficiency is relevant as if a condition C is both necessary and sufficient for a phenomena P, the definition of the phenomena as (the presence of) the condition C would be watertight. In our context, P is “something funny” and C are the conditions suggested by the different theories of humour. This would help us answer the question “What makes something funny?”.
“Simply put, our laughter expresses feelings of superiority over other people or over a former state of ourselves.” (SEP) If you have laughed at seeing a clown slip on a banana peel, the superiority theory can explain this as you feeling superior over the silly clown. This theory also accounts for why we don’t like people laughing at us – it suggests that we are inferior. Some may argue that this theory is overly negative, accounting only for instances of schadenfreude (laughing at others’ misfortune), while humour is usually from a more positive place. To this, the superiority theorists may counter that the notion of superiority (in humour) does not have malicious intent. When I laugh at someone inferior, it may be subconsciously due to the glory I feel at my superiority. Such a subconscious reaction would be primal in nature. However, it is not the case that I am laughing at the subject, the inferior person. Instead, it is merely the aspect of inferiority they showcase that elicits my primal response. Put another way, I would laugh at the quality of inferiority regardless of the subject (whoever exhibits the inferiority). So, I do not wish for someone to fail so that I can laugh at them (which would be malicious), I simply laugh at exhibitions of inferiority. While detractors may criticise such a way of thinking as contrived, it does seem to explain the way we treat some instances of humour. In the case of laughing at the clown slipping on a banana peel, we think that the clown is a fool, exhibiting foolish behaviour (which the superiority theorist argues subconsciously makes us feel superior), and yet feel no malicious intent toward the clown and can separate the subject (clown) from the exhibition of inferiority (slipping on the banana peel).
Ultimately, regardless of whether we are willing to concede that superiority need not be malicious in nature, the condition of superiority is neither necessary nor sufficient for humour. To show that superiority is not a necessary condition, we can look to scenarios where we do not feel superior but can find humour. For instance, we often laugh at wordplay (puns, double entendres) which hardly seem to elicit any feelings of superiority. Next, to show that superiority is not a sufficient condition, we can examine cases where we do feel superior that are not funny: seeing a beggar on the street. While superiority theory is an incomplete theory, it still serves well in explaining some instances of humour.
The Incongruity Theory holds that the cause of laughter is “the perception of something incongruous—something that violates our mental patterns and expectations” (SEP). This should be a more intuitive proposition than superiority theory. Most jokes that we are familiar with follow the structure of setup → punchline. The setup builds the context of the joke and sets up expectations as to what the joke-teller will say next. Then, the joke-teller subverts the expectations with the punchline. A quick Google search for jokes will reveal that many of them fall into this same pattern of setup - punchline. This theory can also account for why we dislike being laughed at – if we are the subject of humour, then there is something incongruous about our existence (or some aspect of it). This incongruity is between our conceptions (how we see/understand things) and the objective reality (how things really are), which will be humorous for observers who notice this incongruity. Being the subject of a joke means that how we see things do not match up to how they actually are, which would evoke negative emotions: fear, anxiety, inferiority. Additionally, Incongruity Theory is comprehensive. It can account for wordplay (violation of linguistic expectations), teasing (violations of personal dignity) and strange behaviours / risqué jokes (violations of social norms). Chances are that most jokes you can think of can be explained under the Incongruity Theory.
The incongruity theory seems like a decent bet, but it has its flaws too. We can employ the same analysis we used on superiority theory – is the condition of incongruity necessary and sufficient? It doesn’t seem sufficient as there are cases of incongruity which we do not find funny. This can occur when a stronger emotion like fear, pity or disgust is present, in which case laughter would not be a response to the incongruity. If a stranger punches us out of the blue, our expectation that we will not get punched out of the blue is subverted, but this would hardly be funny to us or any bystanders. On the other hand, it is difficult to argue that incongruity is not necessary for humour, i.e. that there are funny jokes that are congruous (not incongruous). This is because the criterion of incongruity is really quite broad – almost anything can be taken to be a violation of some expectation or some pattern. Even if we are to grant that incongruity is a necessary condition for humour, since it is insufficient for humour, the Incongruity Theory is at best an incomplete account of humour.
Benign Violation Theory
This is the most recent of the three theories, with the landmark Benign Violation Theory (BVT) paper having been published only in 2010. This is personally my favourite theory in that I think it is the most accurate. It is not a completely novel theory, building from Incongruity Theory. “The benign-violation hypothesis suggests that three conditions are jointly necessary and sufficient for eliciting humor: A situation must be appraised as a violation, a situation must be appraised as benign, and these two appraisals must occur simultaneously” (McGraw & Marr, 2010). We have already looked at the condition of violation in the context of Incongruity Theory, but the condition of benignity is new. Something benign seems okay, safe, or acceptable. The third condition of simultaneity means that one must see both the violatory and benign side of the joke for it to be humorous.
BVT builds on the strengths of incongruity theory (comprehensive, intuitive) while addressing its flaws, namely that incongruity alone could elicit negative emotions like fear, pity, or disgust instead of humour. By holding that humour must be benign, BVT does not consider these situations humorous. This seems to resolve the problem of sufficiency with Incongruity Theory. All in all, BVT seems to put forth conditions that are individually necessary and jointly sufficient for humour.
Furthermore, BVT is interesting in that it has been tested empirically. In the landmark BVT paper, Professor Peter McGraw and Associate Professor Caleb Warren performed experiments where subjects were given jokes to read and rated their funniness. These jokes were either constructed following BVT or not. It was found that subjects thought the jokes following BVT, i.e. containing elements of benignity and violation, were funnier. This supports the BVT hypothesis. In a separate experiment they ran for The Association for Consumer Research, they found that jokes constructed following BVT were thought to be funnier by subjects than the jokes constructed following either incongruity theory or superiority theory. This suggests that BVT is the most suitable theory out of the three. Furthermore, in this same experiment, the jokes written by those who were told to follow BVT were funnier than the jokes written by those who were not told anything, i.e. it was up to them to come up with jokes themselves. However, they were only marginally funnier. This could suggest that BVT matches our natural and intuitive understanding of humour well, the added boost in humour coming from the clarity gain of a formalised theory. This presents an interesting perspective to analyse BVT (and possibly, other humour theories) – from a scientific perspective. If we can conduct scientific experiments to test what is funny or not, there is some hope that we can arrive at the most accurate theory of humour, in a similar way to how we can test the economic law of supply and demand.
As a quick summary, we have been discussing three humour theories – theories that predict whether we will find something funny – superiority theory, incongruity theory and BVT. Of the three, BVT is the most promising so far as the set of criteria it sets forth seem both sufficient and necessary for humour. Thus far, we have used the properties of sufficiency and necessity as indicators of suitability of the theories’ criteria. This principle stems from logic but isn’t a complete evaluation of the theories. In continuing our analysis of the three theories, let’s cast aside the notion of ‘sufficient and necessary’ for a moment and turn to examine the theories’ usability.
Let’s first re-look at Incongruity Theory: the cause of laughter is “the perception of something incongruous—something that violates our mental patterns and expectations” (SEP). If you have yet to validate its effectiveness by testing it on familiar instances of humour and non-humour, do try it – are the instances of humour incongruous and the instances of non-humour non-incongruous? You’ll likely be satisfied with its comprehensiveness. The more you test it, chances are that you will start to realise that the Incongruity is incredibly broad. However, while breadth is usually beneficial, the breadth of incongruity theory comes at the cost of specificity. The criterion of incongruity / violatory is not specific at all – anything can be a violation in some way. Likewise, anything can be not a violation in some other way. So, when evaluating a scenario with Incongruity Theory, since the scenario can be both violatory and non-violatory, it is difficult to establish whether there actually is incongruity. You may find this surprising since this difficulty likely was not apparent in your prior mental evaluation of Incongruity Theory. You likely determined whether a situation was congruous or incongruous fairly quickly and with certainty. However, it is possible to attribute your ease at differentiating congruence from incongruence to confirmation bias. Because you knew whether the scenarios you were testing were supposed to be funny or not, this could have subconsciously influenced your decision on whether something was congruous or not in order to support the Incongruity Theory. All this means that while Incongruity Theory sounds good in theory (necessary and sufficient condition), it is actually difficult to use in practice due to its lack of specificity (breadth).
This somewhat counter-intuitive phenomenon has its roots in the concept of falsifiability. Famously, the philosopher Karl Popper proposed the Falsification Principle to demarcate Science and non-Science. A scientific theory is one that can be falsified, i.e. shown to be false. Importantly, Falsificationism does not prize theories that have been falsified (those are no longer useful for Science since they have been proven to be false) but instead prizes theories that have the potential to be falsified, over theories that can never be falsified. This is a counter-intuitive position as we want our Scientific knowledge to be correct, and if some theories can never be falsified, they can never be wrong, so we should prize them. However, it turns out that unfalsifiable theories are useless for Science. The utility of theories comes from their predictive power. All theories make predictions on whether (or how) certain phenomena happen, so a theory is falsifiable if we can conceivably find a phenomenon it incorrectly predicts will happen (this would show that the theory is false). This means that for unfalsifiable theories, we cannot find a phenomenon it incorrectly predicts will happen. In other words, any possible phenomena that happens can be explained by an unfalsifiable theory. At first glance, this is an attractive prospect: a theory of everything. However, because unfalsifiable theories can explain everything, both an event E happening and E not happening can be explained by the theory. If both explanations are valid under the unfalsifiable theory, the theory does not tell us which explanation to accept. As a result, it does not help us predict whether E will happen or not. This shows that unfalsifiable theories have no predictive power – they cannot predict whether anything will happen. These are really just theories of nothing. Let’s look at one example of this. Karl Marx predicted that the capitalism would eventually give away to communism. When critics raise that this has not yet happened, apologists can argue that capitalism just has not fallen yet, e.g. due to state welfare slowing the progression. At any point of time, if capitalism has not given way, similar ad-hoc explanations can be further put forth. Conversely, if capitalism has given way, the theory is shown to be true. Either way, the theory is not falsified. Since the two possibilities account for anything that can happen, Karl Marx’s theory is unfalsifiable. Critically, it is the vagueness of the word eventually that makes the theory unfalsifiable. If Karl Marx predicted that capitalism would fall in 100 years, that would be a falsifiable theory. Bringing the discussion back to Incongruity Theory, in a similar vein to the example of Marx, the concept of incongruity is vague. Whether a scenario is humorous (or not), incongruity theorists can explain it by arguing that the scenario is incongruous (or not). Likewise, since it can account for any possible scenario, it has no predictive power. This is important as it means that we cannot actually use it to accurately determine whether a scenario will be funny or not, so it fails in its role as a humour theory.
Next, let us shift our attention to Superiority theory: “our laughter expresses feelings of superiority over other people or over a former state of ourselves” (SEP). This theory is guilty of the same offence, although to a lesser extent. The notion of ‘superiority’ is vague as I may be superior to you in one area, but inferior in another. There are many metrics we can use to compare ourselves with others – students might compare their academics, their social life, their sporting excellence or their family relationships against each other – so we can almost always argue that we are superior to another person in some way. It is only in very rare, extreme situations where we may say that one party is superior to another party in every conceivable way. In other words, in almost every other situation, there exists both an argument for one person being superior and an argument for the other being superior. This means that when we attempt to falsify the theory by raising an instance of a funny joke that does not make us feel superior, superiority theorists can simply put forth the opposing argument that the joke does make us feel superior, resisting our falsification. Recall that an unfalsifiable theory has no predictive power.
Finally, let’s discuss the most promising theory so far, BVT: humour is elicited in situations that are simultaneously appraised as benign and violatory. The concept of a violation is similar to the incongruity theorists’ notion of incongruity, which we concluded lacks specificity as every situation can be interpreted as violatory in some way and non-violatory in another. Then, if we take the concept of benignity to mean non-violatory, then the concept of benignity lacks specificity in the same way. This means that the same conclusions can be drawn: BVT is difficult to use in practice and is has little predictive power due to its unfalsifiability.
Implications and responses
The humour theorists’ first response would likely be that the theories are falsifiable. To understand their point, let’s re-evaluate how we reached the conclusion that all 3 theories are unfalsifiable. The argument we used to reach this conclusion follows the same structure across the 3 theories:
- The theories rely on subjective criteria. Incongruity theorists rely on “the perception of something incongruous”, superiority theorists rely on the “feelings of superiority”, and benign-violation theorists rely on the appraisals of benignity and violations. Perceptions, feelings, and appraisals are all subjective, meaning that they can differ from one person to the next.
- Since the criterion used by each theory is subjective, one cannot objectively, and conclusively, say that one feeling is correct or that another appraisal is wrong.
- In the face of falsification, e.g. you raise an example of a funny joke that (you argue) does not meet the conditions of a particular theory, the humour theorist can exploit the subjectivity of the criteria to argue that the joke does actually meet the conditions of the theory. In such a manner, all attempts at falsifying the theory can be defeated.
- Therefore, the theories are unfalsifiable.
The humour theorist would likely agree with the first three points, but disagree that the conclusion, point 4, can be reached from the prior points. They would argue that just because all attempts at falsifying the theory can be defeated doesn’t mean that all attempts at falsifying the theory will be defeated. In other words, while a superiority theorist can abuse the subjectivity of the criterion of “feelings of superiority” to defeat a falsifying attempt, he may not do so if he agrees with the detractor. For instance, taste in movies is subjective, but there can still be agreement among people about which films are good. The theories are theoretically unfalsifiable (by a humour theorist acting in bad faith), but practically speaking, humour theorists are generally willing to concede legitimate falsification attempts. Furthermore, it would not matter that there was a bad-faith humour theorist rejecting all attempts at falsifying his theory if everyone else agrees with the falsification claims. There will always be a doubt that the so-called bad-faith humour theorist was correct all along, and we were always just confused about our feelings of superiority, perceptions of incongruity or our appraisals of benign violations. However, this doubt is incredibly small, especially if the general sentiment is against that humour theorist. In this manner, the voice of the general public acts as a form of checks and balances for humour theories. This is similar to how peer review and replication by the scientific fraternity acts as a form of checks and balances for scientific theories, allowing the community to detect academic dishonesty. The difference being that for humour theory, all of us are the ‘scientists’, as we are each the most credible sources of whether we have feelings of superiority / a perception of incongruity / an appraisal of a benign violation, and whether we find something funny. Unfortunately, this also makes conclusive attempts at determining whether a theory is true very difficult, as humour theorists need to poll a large sample of people, across a large set of prompts.
In summary, the 3 theories are falsifiable, which means they do have predictive power. However, as established in point 1, all 3 theories rely on subjective criteria. This does mean that they are harder to use. We cannot point to an objective measurement, as we do in Science, when we talk about our feelings, perceptions, and appraisals. In fact, it is debatable if theories based on these subjective states can be granted the same weight as scientific theories.
We started off with the section of humour theories with a direct comparison of humour theories to scientific theories, which set up the expectation of humour theories being akin to natural laws. We used the conditions of sufficiency and necessity to evaluate each of the 3 theories, which are concepts from logic. We then analysed their flaws in terms of unfalsifiability and subjectivity, qualities eschewed by scientific theorists. However, it now seems that that initial direct comparison was too ambitious. After all, humour is a deeply complex, social phenomenon, and we cannot even agree on the definitions of some words and what some social cues mean. So, perhaps attempting to map humour the same way we have laws for our physical world is too tall an order, at least for now. Then, it would make less sense to expect necessity and sufficiency, or falsifiability and objectivity, from our theories. In doing so, by concerning ourselves less with absolute truth, we can focus instead on utility – whether the theories are usable in practice. If our goal is then to use the theories to create humour, we can view the theories as tools, each with different strengths. Using them together would give us the best shot at creating humour.
Some humour theorists may argue that humour theories are comparable to scientific theories. As established earlier, BVT puts forth individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions, is falsifiable (in practice), and based on subjective criteria. The only difference between BVT and a scientific theory is that the latter is based on objective criteria. However, some argue that scientific theories are subjective in nature too. There are a multitude of biases that affect scientific observations. Overconfidence bias, confirmation bias and herd mentality have all affected scientific observations before. For example, prior to the 20th century, some astronomers were so convinced of Newton’s Laws of Gravitation, that when they noticed Mercury’s orbit deviating from expectations, they predicted the existence of a undiscovered planet, Vulcan, influencing Mercury’s orbit, which would explain the deviations under Newton’s Laws. They were so convinced that they purportedly managed to observe Vulcan, but we now know Vulcan does not exist. This example of bias affecting Science is not a one-off either. Together with cases of academic fraud, we cannot be so sure that Science is objective after all. Furthermore, some argue that humour is inherently subjective, so naturally the laws the govern humour are subjective as well. Scientific laws are accurate if they make good predictions on events that occur in our physical world. Since the events that occur in the world are the same for everyone (we live in the same physical world), scientific laws should make the same predictions on the events that occur, no matter who is the one using the law. Consequently, the criteria used by the scientific law need to be objective, so that no matter who is using the law, the same prediction will be made. Conversely, humour exists in our minds. For the subjectivists, we, as individuals, are the sole arbiter of whether something is funny. Applying the same reasoning as before, humour theories are accurate if they can make good predictions on events that occur in our minds. Since the events that occur in our minds are different and the truth of each situation (whether something is funny or not) is dependent on our individual minds, it is no surprise that the criteria used by the humour theories need to be subjective. However, this subjectivity is necessary to describe humour, and is thus inescapable. In fact, the wideness and ambiguity of the criteria in the 3 theories points to the fact that jokes are funny only in certain contexts, and not funny in others.
In conclusion, it is doubtful if we can use Science to study humour, and the difficulties in using it reflects humour’s subjective nature. Putting aside an analysis of the truth-conduciveness (how frequently a process generates true beliefs) of humour theories, it seems that we would be better off actually testing the utility of the 3 theories. Compared to scientific laws where objective measurements can be made, humour theories are not the easiest to use. They work on the individual level, which necessitates an understanding of the individual. I will dive deeper into these practical applications in the next part of this series.
To end, an interesting note. None of the humour theories require that we, the audience of the joke, be committed to the subject matter of a joke. In other words, we do not need to agree with the joke to find it funny. In fact, according to BVT, if we find the joke funny, we can see how it is both okay (benign) according to one norm, and not okay (violatory) according to another norm. This is hardly the same as believing the subject of the joke to be true. On the other hand, a comedian need not believe in the subject of the joke either. Given that humour theories are falsifiable, they carry with them predictive power. This means that humour is essentially a skill of how well you can make predictions about what people will find funny. Understanding the humour theory and knowing how to apply it are both important parts of the skill. Since humour is a skill of making predictions about other people will find funny, a successful comedian only needs to be able to read other people well. His jokes are not necessarily a representation of what he believes in, merely what he believes the audience will find funny. If we can adopt this view, then the comic is an artist, where making jokes are his skill, and the subject is his medium. Understanding humour theory allows us to appreciate humour better, as an art.
This is my first time writing something like this, so all feedback is welcome. While I tried to represent the existing literature accurately, I am far from an expert on the subject so please forgive any inaccuracies.