I’m happy to admit that I’m a comedy nerd. I’ve always loved comedy—and that includes consuming and producing it. I’m also happy to admit that I’m a psychology nerd, but this puts me in an odd position. It seems like I should be an expert on the psychology of humor, but I’m conflicted about it.
I think it’s because I love comedy that I’m so hesitant to apply the cold blade of scientific analysis to it. There’s a classic quotation from E. B. White:
Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.
It’s a point of view that’s always resonated with me. Why deconstruct something that’s meant to bring joy? Books that promise to unlock the keys to writing a funny joke always seemed empty and unsatisfying. A joke that’s created with a formula feels devoid of the magical spark that defines true comedy.
But maybe there’s something to a scientific look at comedy. Psychologists have been studying humor for a long time, and some compelling “grand theories” of the psychology of humor have emerged. I noticed a recent paper testing some core components of one particular theory—benign violation theory—and I figured it was time to read up on the psychology of humor.
What is “Humor”?
We’ve got to start by defining our key concept if we’re going to study it. For this, I’ll defer to a standard definition, as written by Caleb Warren and Peter McGraw: “humor is a psychological response characterized by the positive emotion of amusement, the appraisal that something is funny, and the tendency to laugh.”
Doesn’t get much funnier than that!
Basically, the idea is that we’re going to say something is funny as long as it makes someone laugh, makes them think “that’s funny,” or gives them the positive feeling of being amused. Make sense?
Things are Funny When They’re “Benign Violations”
One theory of the psychology of humor that’s been gaining a lot of traction is called benign violation theory, developed by Peter McGraw. The gist of this theory is that we find something funny when two conditions are met: it violates the way we think the world should work, and it does so in a way that’s not threatening.
First, the violation part. The crux of this is that we all have a basic sense of how the world should work, which includes the norms for appropriate behavior and general beliefs about what is “correct.” When our basic sense of the world is violated, it might make us laugh. If someone does something wrong or says something they’re not “supposed to” say, it’s grounds for giggles.
But not all violations are hilarious! How about the recent terrorist attacks in Brussels? I think we’ll agree that it wasn’t funny, but it was a violation. It violates our notion of appropriate conduct. The difference, though, is that there was real harm in those attacks—harm that undermines any humor that could lie in the violation.
That’s why the benign part of the “benign violation” is so important. It’s only when the violation also seems “okay” that it makes us laugh. If the intention is playful, if we all agree that it’s for the sake of comedy, if it’s about something that happened a long time ago, if you don’t care much about the rule being broken, etc.
Isn’t it Just All About Surprise?
The great thing about “benign violation theory” is that it solves some problems in other theories of the psychology of humor. A lot of people have said that the key to something being funny is that there’s an “incongruity” present.
Sometimes this means “surprise”—what actually happened goes against what you thought would happen. Heck, even Aristotle said, “The secret to humor is surprise.” And he knew everything!
The problem is that even though funny things are often surprising, there are also plenty of unfunny things that are surprising. For example, this kid was decidedly not pleased with the surprise that he was going to Disney Land. You can also think about a time when you expected to get one gift for Christmas but ended up with something else—surprising but not necessarily funny.
A recent series of studies put benign violation theory and the surprise theory to the test. They showed some people a video clip of a pole vaulter whose pole broke in the middle of the jump (actual clip), and they showed other people a video clip of a successful pole vault. Importantly, though, they led some people to expect that the pole vaulter would be successful, and they led other people to expect that he’d be unsuccessful.
If the surprise theory is correct, then people should think the video was funny when (a) they thought the pole vaulter would be unsuccessful and (b) they saw the video of a successful pole vaulter. After all, it goes against expectation! As their results showed, though, people found the unsuccessful pole vault funnier than the successful pole vault even when they knew it would be unsuccessful (i.e., no surprise!)
Always End on a Joke
So do you buy it? Does benign violation theory solve the mysteries of comedy for you? I have to say, that it does a pretty good job explaining many cases of humor. Can you think of something funny that the theory doesn’t account for? Maybe New Yorker cartoons. Just kidding—those aren’t funny to begin with.
Even if it’s not the ultimate grand theory of everything (or at least, humor), I’m at least convinced that it’s an improvement over existing “incongruity” theories. It clarifies the conditions under which something is likely to be funny.
Okay, budding comedians…go forth and write your jokes! You know the psychology of humor now, so just apply the tested framework of benign violation, and you will find great success and Netflix specials in your future. Sure, there are other elements like delivery and timing…but I’m sure the psychology research is about to address those issues, too.
1. Case in point—I referenced the movie “Wet Hot American Summer” twice in my last post.
2. It reminds me of a similar quotation: “writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” which I always thought was something Frank Zappa said, but I just learned that there’s a good deal of controversy about who said it first.
3. Okay, there might be a few of you who thought it was funny that I mentioned the terrorist attacks because it might have been perceived as inappropriate—a violation, if you will.
4. Did someone say “too soon”!? Ha ha!
5. I should note that “surprise” isn’t the only alternative that they tested in the recent research. They also found that benign violations are better at explaining humor than other incongruities like “juxtaposition” and “atypicality.”
About the Author
Andy Luttrell is a Social Psychologist and has recently finished his PhD. Now he’s continuing to conduct research in the area of attitudes and persuasion while teaching the world about psychology.