Nuances of Humor: Understanding Humor in Psychology

While it is said that, on average, children laugh 300 times a day and adults only laugh five times a day, we have to ask ourselves: how is this natural phenomenon developed and how is it sculpted? Since children laugh more than adults, does our sense of humor dwindle as we become more aware and educated of the world? And, if adults are laughing less than children, is laughing, and the art of humor, a process we unlearn?  Although many psychologists discredit the scientific importance of studying humor—a topic that seems trivial—the global recognition and cognitive complexity of laughter and humor may, in fact, make it one of the most important topics to investigate in psychology. With a psychology approach, this article is going to break down what is humor, explore the different types of humor and humor theories, and consider how humor affects our daily lives.



What is Humor? Where does humor come from?

With the expanded investigation of the developmental and cognitive psychology of humor, the most fundamental question remains the most difficult to explain: what is humor? While the quotidian usage of it may be associated with the ability to be amusing or be amused by something, scientifically, what are the thresholds of humor to a. make something funny in the first place and b. make something funny before it becomes vulgar? Without any central definition of humor utilized in the world of psychology, University of Western Ontario professor, Rod A. Martin, was prompted to write a unifying book that investigated the role of humor in psychology. In doing so, he defined it as:

“a process [that] can be divided into four essential components: (1) a social context, (2) a cognitive-perceptual process, (3) an emotional response, and (4) the vocal-behavioral expression of laughter”.

Although a central definition has yet to be established amongst psychology researchers over the past decade, Martin’s definition has played an important role in identifying specific components that are necessary for humor. While there are discrepancies between researchers on the specific makeup of “humor,” most psychologists can agree that coupled social dynamics and subtle verbal phrasing are the prevailing ingredients of what makes something funny.

Origin of Humor

While the perception of humor is instinctive to most of us, where, and why, was it developed? As compulsive as it seems, the cognitive complexity of humor requires several skills: language and intellect, awareness of correct social context, an ability to limit it, and abstract thinking.

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More importantly, this reflexive behavior is similar to other behavioral reflexes with biological basis (e.g. a startled response). Thus, this complexity suggests that there is some form of genetic wiring that is responsible for this and makes it similar to other fixed action patterns. Richard Alexander, a distinguished former professor at the University of Michigan, was one of the first researchers to analyze humor from an evolutionary perspective in 1986. Extending from a proposed theory (Hobbes’ superiority theory), Alexander proposed that reproductive success came from an individual’s ability to use humor to advance social standing and ostracizing others; by using ostracism, it ultimately affects access to resources and therefore survival. Alexander’s evolutionary theory proposes that, by using humor, it advances social status (mate selection enhancement), decreases the social status of other individuals (increases desirability amongst potential mates), and initiates social unity. While the origins of humor are a main focus of research, the proposed idea of evolutionary adaptiveness is a prevailing theory underlying the origin of humor amongst modern research.

Importance of Humor

Although laughter and humor coincide with one another, laughter is an important, subsidiary component of humor. The overlapping words are closely related, noting that laughter is the result of experiencing a humorous cognitive activity or other external stimuli. While laughter can be thought of as a critical outcome of humor, not all humorous situations produce laughter. Although the psychology of humor is increasing a focus on laughter itself, a prominent feature of laughter is the universal, non-verbal language that it forms. Even though laughter is an offshoot of humor, the non-verbal language of laughter proposes a reason for the global recognition and usage of humor across various cultures, demographics, and age groups. So, while these close-knit words are integral parts of one another, it is important to establish their precise relationship to one another and the important position laughter plays in humor. While the significance has been growing in the field of psychology over the past decades, it also bestows social, psychological, and physical benefits. It attracts attention and admiration, softens the criticism, delineates social boundaries, and alleviates conflict between people of different backgrounds. It is also an important phenomenon because it becomes more refined with development, and with development, humor becomes more sophisticated. It also plays a specific and significant role in developmental psychology and cognitive psychology. In adults who lack the ability to appreciate or create humor, deficiencies are thought to be signals for autism, Asperger syndrome, and schizophrenia. In children, the ability to develop a sense of humor serves as a marker as to whether or not symbolism and abstract thinking are being developed. While the importance of it once seemed trivial, the ability to develop and comprehend humor are critical marks of health and “normal” development.

Past vs. Present: Shifting Views of Humor

At the base of the three theories of that exist today, historical figures, such as Kant, Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, and Freud, underlie the framework for the prominent theories still utilized today. While each distinguished historical figure contributed to each theory, Freud distinctly broke down humor into six aspects, specifically focusing on aspects that surround humorous events:

  1. The most favorable condition of the production of comic pleasure is a generally cheerful mood in which one is “inclined to laugh.”
  2. A similarly favorable effect is produced by an expectation of the comic, by 2 being attuned to comic pleasure.
  3. Unfavorable conditions for the comic arise from the kind of mental activity with which a particular person is occupied at the moment.
  4. The opportunity for the release of comic pleasure disappears, too, if the attention is focused precisely on the comparison from which the comic may emerge.
  5. The comic is greatly interfered with if the situation from which it ought to develop gives rise at the same time to a release of strong effect.
  6. The generating of comic pleasure can be encouraged by any other accompanying circumstance.

With Freud’s five proposed conditions of humorous events, it laid the foundation for his release theory of laughter. While anthropologists and linguists attempted to theorize humor historically, Freud was one of the leading historical figures that attempted to break down the components of humor—paving a pathway for other psychologists of his time and for future research.

The Four Theories of Humor

When it comes to what is funny or comedy, we sometimes reflect and wonder: what made it so funny? Especially when fluke accidents provoke laughter, it seems ridiculous, and even cruel at times, to laugh at the misfortune of others. As various psychologists have encountered the same questions, four leading theories debunk the motives behind humor and laughter.

Humor Incongruity Theory

As the most popular theory, the incongruity theory suggests that people laugh at things that surprise them because of the context in which it is presented: things are incongruent (out of place) within the context of which they are delivered. This goes along with the idea that jokes are funny because they contradict our expectations for what should happen. But more importantly, with this theory, the incongruity is also between the set-up and the punchline.

“Mommy, Mommy! What is a delinquent child?” “Shut up and pass me the crowbar.”

In this example, the set-up line prompts us to think that the mother is going be nurturing and educate the innocent child. But the punch line shocks us with a social violation from the mother’s incongruous response; mothers are not supposed to encourage and demonstrate appalling behavior for their children. Referred to as the “incongruity-resolution” theory, the incongruity delivered by the punch line is accompanied by a shocking surprise, consequently making us laugh.

Humor Superiority Theory

Another proposed theory is that we laugh at situations that make us feel superior to other people. A few months ago, I was walking with a coffee-addicted friend of mine after she spent her last few dollars on a large iced coffee. Minutes later, after leaving the coffee shop, she tripped on the first step she encountered, consequently spilling the entire coffee on the floor. I laughed as she laid on the floor on top of it, staring at her craving melting into the dirty carpet. What made me laugh? Was it the irony of the situation? Was it the dramatic pause at the realization that she couldn’t drink the coffee and couldn’t get another? According to this theory, I laughed because my friend had been made to look foolish and that made me feel good, so good that I laughed. This theory suggests that when people make a stupid mistake, are the victim of an unfortunate situation, or misunderstand an obvious instruction, they look stupid in a social environment. Thus, we laugh at these jokes, people, and situations because it makes us feel superior to the victim and their unfortunate luck.

Tension Release Theory

While Sigmund Freud is often known for his theory of repression—his idea that we all have aggressive thoughts but are unable to openly express them—and psychotherapy practices, he was also a psychologist intrigued by the psychology of humor. According to Freud, he believed that jokes, and humor, were a way in which people could release their sexual or aggressive thoughts in a socially acceptable way. Freud proposed that it served as a way to cope with the problems and issues in our lives that we are hesitant to confront in another way—thus it provides a source of relief for these thoughts unconsciously. By attempting to cope with varying emotions and thoughts, laughter is a way to release the tension that was built. This theory is a technique used in various thriller movies and plays; during scenes that include high tension, the plot introduces various comic reliefs, such as a funny side comment from a character. By doing this, it allows the viewer to release the pent-up emotions created while tension built, so the viewer can feel relief before the plot builds tension again.

Humor Benign Violation Theory

While this theory isn’t an official amongst the psychology world yet, the developing theory has been making headway over recent years. This theory is a bit of a patchwork theory: as it builds on the three other proposed theories, it also integrates work of a linguist, Tom Veatch. This theory proposes that this only occurs when three specific conditions are satisfied: a. a situation is a violation b. the situation is benign c. both perceptions occur simultaneously These violations are strictly based on how an individual believes the world should be, thus accounting for the discrepancy between what different people find funny. An example of this is tickling, which naturally produces laughter amongst primate, but is a benign violation because they are harmless attacks yet have the ability to be physically threatening. This theory is also important because it accounts for the thresholds of what is and is not funny. It explains that a situation may not be funny because the violation isn’t simultaneously benign, or because it is benign without a social violation. In the example of tickling, laughter seizes when it is too benign (the lack of tickling) or when it becomes too much of a violation (aggressive tickling). Similarly, with jokes, the threshold as to whether or not the joke is funny is a delicate balance of being tamed and crude.

Styles of Humor

Within personality psychology research, four humor styles have been honed to reflect the how individuals utilize humor in everyday situations. Developed by Rod Martin and Patricia Doris in 2003, the Humor Style Questionnaire (HSQ) is a quiz that assesses an individual’s humor style; two humor styles inflate self-image or while the other two styles of humor deprecate it.

The Four Styles of Humor:

Affiliative Humor

Based on telling jokes that everyone can relate to in hopes of bringing groups of people together through humor. These jokes focus on the humor of everyday life and are most often used by comedians. Through the use of affiliative humor, the goal is to promote happiness and create fellowship. Examples

  • Using crazy and exaggerated vocal intonations or facial expressions
  • Jokes that everyone finds amusement in

Self-Enhancing Humor

This kind of humor is based on the ability to laugh at yourself when things go wrong, finding the humor in unfortunate, everyday situations. Self-enhancing humor is seen as a way to cope with stress by putting a positive spin on a  negative situation. Examples

  • Jon Stewart on The Daily Show
  • Commentary on unfortunate situations to make it more amusing
  • Noting daily idiosyncrasies

Aggressive humor

Aggressive humor typically is targeted humor that puts-down or insults other individuals. This is the kind of humor that is used by bullies as it aims to emotionally and verbally abuse the target. This is the kind of humor is “off-color” and has to potential to make some audiences feel uncomfortable. Examples

  • Insults, racist jokes, targeted put-downs, critical commentary
  • Used by Joan Rivers

Self-defeating humor

Self-defeating humor victimizes and insults the speaker. It captures the audience’s attention with a “poor me” approach which is humorous for the audience, but mentally harmful of the speaker. This form of humor is typically seen as the most unhealthy because it dwells on the negative aspects of the self and can lower confidence. While this style of humor gives the speaker a way to laugh at themselves, it usually acknowledges the speaker’s low self-confidence and insecurities before the audience is able to notice it on their own.   Examples

  • “It doesn’t help because I’m so fat”
  • The speaker pointing out their own weaknesses to the audiences

How Does Humor Affect Our Daily Lives? How Does It Influence Disorders?

In many psychology studies, it has been confirmed that laughter, the result of humor, leads to increased heart rates and oxygen consumption—like aerobic exercise. Humor also increases epinephrine and norepinephrine within the sympathetic nervous system, stabilizing blood pressure or decreasing high blood pressure caused by sad emotions. Even within the immune system, laughter as a response to humorous stimuli increases natural killer cell activity which prevents viruses and kills cancerous cells.

Humor as a Defense Mechanism

Nervous laughter is a common response that serves as a defense mechanism. While many people respond to aggressive humor with nervous laughter–to release their uneasy and uncomfortable emotions–it has been found that this response reduces the suffering the “laugher” experiences, thus a defense mechanism. Nervous laughter is a physiological response that finds humor in serious situations in an attempt to protect the person from having to face an uncomfortable situation. (e.g. When someone laughs at a tragic accident.)

Stress and humor

Anxiety and depression are both examples of stress responses in the body. As laughter lowers blood pressure, it also releases endorphins to counter cortisol and adrenaline, chemically releasing a sense of joy into the brain. Even smiling causes the brain to release dopamine into the body, automatically making us feel happier. By remaining in a calm state, or laughing to attain a calmer state, the body becomes more stable and rational, creating a more positive mental state. Also, within the immune system, the release of neuropeptides relieves pain and lessens depression and anxiety.

Humor: Art of Amusement

So, do children laugh more than adults? Do people really lose their sense of funniness with age? Not necessarily. Because it is refined over development, children laugh and express themselves in ways that are socially unacceptable for adults. While adults may find the same situations as funny that children do, adults simply know when it is, and is not, acceptable to laugh.  There are five main ideas:

  1. Laughter is a universal communication tool that translates humorous situations across various age groups, cultures, and demographics
  2. It can act as a defense mechanism for thoughts and feelings that create tension and seek relief (Tension Release Theory)
  3. It acts as a way to cope with stress to alleviate negative feelings and alleviate cognitive dissonance
  4. It is built off of our ability to understand our social situations, pick up on nuances, and apply intellect to our daily lives so we can indulge in the subtle and egregious applications of humor
  5. It acts as a way to maintain happiness by creating situations that make us feel good and better about ourselves

If you found this article interesting, let us know in the comments below! Have questions? You can ask those in the comments below, too!


Price, M. (2007, November). The Joke’s In You.

Cann, A., & Collette, C. (2014). Sense of Humor, Stable Affect, and Psychological Well-Being. Europe’s Journal of Psychology, 10(3), 464-479. doi:10.5964/ejop.v10i3.746

McGraw, P. (2011, September). The Importance of Humor Research.

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