Theories of humor

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There are many theories of humor which attempt to explain what humor is, what social functions it serves, and what would be considered humorous. Among the prevailing types of theories that attempt to account for the existence of humor, there are psychological theories, the vast majority of which consider humor to be very healthy behavior; there are spiritual theories, which may—for instance—consider humor to be a gift from "God"; and there are also theories that consider humor to be an inexplicable mystery, very much like a mystical experience.[1] Although various classical theories of humor and laughter may be found, in contemporary academic literature, three theories of humor appear repeatedly: relief theory, superiority theory, and incongruity theory.[2] Among current humor researchers, there is no consensus about which of these three theories of humor is most viable.[2] Proponents of each one originally claimed their theory to be capable of explaining all cases of humor,[2][3] however, they now acknowledge that although each theory generally covers its own area of focus, many instances of humor can be explained by more than one theory.[2][3][4][5] Incongruity and superiority theories, for instance, seem to describe complementary mechanisms which together create humor.[6]

Relief theory[edit]

Relief theory maintains that laughter is a homeostatic mechanism by which psychological tension is reduced.[2][3][7] Humor may thus for example serve to facilitate relief of the tension caused by one's fears.[8] Laughter and mirth, according to relief theory, result from this release of nervous energy.[2] Humor, according to relief theory, is used mainly to overcome sociocultural inhibitions and reveal suppressed desires. It is believed that this is the reason we laugh whilst being tickled, due to a build up of tension as the tickler "strikes".[2][9]

Superiority theory[edit]

The superiority theory of humor traces back to Plato and Aristotle, and Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan. The general idea is that a person laughs about misfortunes of others (so called schadenfreude), because these misfortunes assert the person's superiority on the background of shortcomings of others.[10] Socrates was reported by Plato as saying that the ridiculous was characterized by a display of self-ignorance.[11] For Aristotle, we laugh at inferior or ugly individuals, because we feel a joy at feeling superior to them.[12]

Incongruity theory[edit]

Further information: ridiculousness

The incongruity theory states that humor is perceived at the moment of realization of incongruity between a concept involved in a certain situation and the real objects thought to be in some relation to the concept.[10]

Since the main point of the theory is not the incongruity per se, but its realization and resolution (i.e., putting the objects in question into the real relation), it is often called the incongruity-resolution theory.[10]

Francis Hutcheson expressed in Thoughts on Laughter (1725) what became a key concept in the evolving theory of the comic: laughter as a response to the perception of incongruity.[13] Arthur Schopenhauer wrote that the perceived incongruity is between a concept and the real object it represents. Hegel shared almost exactly the same view, but saw the concept as an "appearance" and believed that laughter then totally negates that appearance. According to Herbert Spencer, laughter is an "economical phenomenon" whose function is to release "psychic energy" that had been wrongly mobilized by incorrect or false expectations. The latter point of view was supported also by Sigmund Freud.

The first formulation of the incongruity theory is attributed to the Scottish poet Beattie.[14]

The most famous version of the incongruity theory, however, is that of Kant, who claimed that the comic is "the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing." Henri Bergson attempted to perfect incongruity by reducing it to the "living" and "mechanical".[15]

An incongruity like Bergson's, in things juxtaposed simultaneously, is still in vogue. This is often debated against theories of the shifts in perspectives in humour; hence, the debate in the series Humor Research between John Morreall and Robert Latta.[16] Morreall presented mostly simultaneous juxtapositions,[17] with Latta focusing on a "cognitive shift" created by the sudden solution to some kind of problem.

Humour frequently contains an unexpected, often sudden, shift in perspective, which gets assimilated by the Incongruity Theory. This view has been defended by Latta (1998) and by Brian Boyd (2004).[18] Boyd views the shift as from seriousness to play. Nearly anything can be the object of this perspective twist; it is, however, in the areas of human creativity (science and art being the varieties) that the shift results from "structure mapping" (termed "bisociation" by Koestler) to create novel meanings.[19] Arthur Koestler argues that humour results when two different frames of reference are set up and a collision is engineered between them.

General Theory of Verbal Humor[edit]

The General Theory of Verbal Humor (GTVH) proposed by Victor Raskin and Salvatore Attardo in 1991 (an extension of the Semantic Script Theory of Humor [SSTH] which Raskin proposed in 1985) identifies a semantic model capable of expressing incongruities between semantic scripts in verbal humor; this has been seen as an important recent development in the theory of laughter.[20][clarification needed]

Computational-Neural Theory of Humor[edit]

The Computer Model of a Sense of Humor theory was suggested by Suslov in 1992.[21] Investigation of the general scheme of information processing shows the possibility of a specific malfunction, conditioned by the necessity of a quick deletion from consciousness of a false version. This specific malfunction can be identified with a humorous effect on psychological grounds: it exactly corresponds to incongruity-resolution theory. However, an essentially new ingredient, the role of timing, is added to the well-known role of ambiguity. In biological systems, a sense of humor inevitably develops in the course of evolution, because its biological function consists of quickening the transmission of the processed information into consciousness and in a more effective use of brain resources. A realization of this algorithm in neural networks[22] justifies naturally Spencer's hypothesis on the mechanism of laughter: deletion of a false version corresponds to zeroing of some part of the neural network and excessive energy of neurons is thrown out to the motor cortex, arousing muscular contractions.

The theory treats on equal footing the humorous effect created by the linguistic means (verbal humor), as well as created visually (caricature, clown performance) or by tickling. The theory explains the natural differences in susceptibility of people to humor, absence of humorous effect from a trite joke, the role of intonation in telling jokes, nervous laughter, etc. According to this theory, humor has a pure biological origin, while its social functions arose later. This conclusion corresponds to the known fact that monkeys (as pointed out by Charles Darwin) and even rats (as found recently) possess a sense of humor.[23]

A practical realization of this algorithm needs extensive databases, whose creation in the automatic regime was suggested recently.[24]

Ontic-Epistemic Theory of Humor[edit]

The Ontic-Epistemic Theory of Humor (OETC) proposed by P. Marteinson (2006) asserts that laughter is a reaction to a cognitive impasse, a momentary epistemological difficulty, in which the subject perceives that Social Being itself suddenly appears no longer to be real in any factual or normative sense. When this occurs material reality, which is always factually true, is the only percept remaining in the mind at such a moment of comic perception. This theory posits, as in Bergson, that human beings accept as real both normative immaterial percepts, such as social identity, and neological factual percepts, but also that the individual subject normally blends the two together in perception in order to live by the assumption they are equally real. The comic results from the perception that they are not. This same result arises in a number of paradigmatic cases: factual reality can be seen to conflict with and disprove social reality, which Marteinson calls Deculturation; alternatively, social reality can appear to contradict other elements of social reality, which he calls "Relativisation". Laughter, according to Marteinson, serves to reset and re-boot the faculty of social perception, which has been rendered non-functional by the comic situation: it anesthetizes the mind with its euphoria, and permits the forgetting of the comic stimulus, as well as the well-known function of communicating the humorous reaction to other members of society.[25]

Sexual selection[edit]

Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller contends that, from an evolutionary perspective, humour would have had no survival value to early humans living in the savannas of Africa. He proposes that human characteristics like humor evolved by sexual selection. He argues that humour emerged as an indicator of other traits that were of survival value, such as human intelligence.[26]

Detection of mistaken reasoning[edit]

In 2011, three researchers, Hurley, Dennett and Adams, published a book that reviews previous theories of humor and many specific jokes. They propose the theory that humor evolved because it strengthens the ability of the brain to find mistakes in active belief structures, that is, to detect mistaken reasoning.[27] This is somewhat consistent with the sexual selection theory, because, as stated above, humor would be a reliable indicator of an important survival trait: the ability to detect mistaken reasoning. However, the three researchers argue that humor is fundamentally important because it is the very mechanism that allows the human brain to excel at practical problem solving. Thus, according to them, humor did have survival value even for early humans, because it enhanced the neural circuitry needed to survive.

Misattribution theory[edit]

Misattribution is one theory of humor that describes an audience's inability to identify exactly why they find a joke to be funny. The formal theory is attributed to Zillmann & Bryant (1980) in their article, "Misattribution Theory of Tendentious Humor", published in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. They derived the critical concepts of the theory from Sigmund Freud's Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious (note: from a Freudian perspective, wit is separate from humor), originally published in 1905.

Benign Violation Theory[edit]

The benign violation theory (BVT) is developed by researchers A. Peter McGraw and Caleb Warren.[28] The BVT integrates seemingly disparate theories of humor to predict that humor occurs when three conditions are satisfied: 1) something threatens one's sense of how the world "ought to be", 2) the threatening situation seems benign, and 3) a person sees both interpretations at the same time.

From an evolutionary perspective, humorous violations likely originated as apparent physical threats, like those present in play fighting and tickling. As humans evolved, the situations that elicit humor likely expanded from physical threats to other violations, including violations of personal dignity (e.g., slapstick, teasing), linguistic norms (e.g., puns, malapropisms), social norms (e.g., strange behaviors, risqué jokes), and even moral norms (e.g., disrespectful behaviors). The BVT suggests that anything that threatens one's sense of how the world "ought to be" will be humorous, so long as the threatening situation also seems benign.

There is also more than one way a violation can seem benign. McGraw and Warren tested three contexts in the domain of moral violations. A violation can seem benign if one norm suggests something is wrong but another salient norm suggests it is acceptable. A violation can also seem benign when one is psychologically distant from the violation or is only weakly committed to the violated norm.

For example, McGraw and Warren find that most consumers were disgusted when they read about a church raffling off a Hummer SUV to recruit new members. However, many consumers were simultaneously amused. Consistent with the BVT, people who attended church were less likely to be amused than people who did not. Churchgoers are more committed to the belief that churches are sacred and, consequently, were less likely to consider the church's behavior benign.

Humor as defense mechanism[edit]

According to George Eman Vaillant's (1977) categorization, humor is level IV defense mechanism: overt expression of ideas and feelings (especially those that are unpleasant to focus on or too terrible to talk about) that gives pleasure to others. Humor, which explores the absurdity inherent in any event, enables someone to "call a spade a spade", while "wit" is a form of displacement (level 3). Wit refers to the serious or distressing in a humorous way, rather than disarming it; the thoughts remain distressing, but they are "skirted round" by witticism.

Sense of humor, sense of seriousness[edit]

One must have a sense of humor and a sense of seriousness to distinguish what is supposed to be taken literally or not. An even more keen sense is needed when humor is used to make a serious point.[29][30] Psychologists have studied how humor is intended to be taken as having seriousness, as when court jesters used humor to convey serious information. Conversely, when humor is not intended to be taken seriously, bad taste in humor may cross a line after which it is taken seriously, though not intended.[31]

Metaphor and metonymy[edit]

Tony Veale, who takes a more formalised computational approach than Koestler, has written on the role of metaphor and metonymy in humour,[32][33][34] using inspiration from Koestler as well as from Dedre Gentner's theory of structure-mapping, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson's theory of conceptual metaphor, and Mark Turner and Gilles Fauconnier's theory of conceptual blending.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Raymond Smullyan, "The Planet Without Laughter", This Book Needs No Title
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Buijzen, M., Valkenburg, P. M. (2004). "Developing a Typology of Humor in Audiovisual Media". Media Psychology, 6, 147–167.
  3. ^ a b c Meyer, J. C. (2000). "Humour as a double-edged sword: Four functions of humour in communication." Communication Theory, 10, 310–331.
  4. ^ Berger, A. A. (1993). An Anatomy of Humor. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.
  5. ^ Veatch, T. C. (1998). "A Theory of Humor". Humor, 11, 163–215.
  6. ^ Vandaele, J. (2002). "Humor Mechanisms in Film Comedy: Incongruity and Superiority". Poetics Today, 23, 221–249
  7. ^ Berlyne, D. E. (1972). "Humour and its kin", in J. H. Goldstein & P. E. McGhee (Eds.), The Psychology of Humour (pp. 43–60). New York: Academic.
  8. ^ C. George Boeree. "Humor". Webspace.ship.edu. Retrieved 2012-12-11. 
  9. ^ Schaeffer, N. (1981). The Art of Laughter. New York: Columbia University Press.
  10. ^ a b c M.P. Mulder, A. Nijholt (2002) "Humour Research: State of the Art"
  11. ^ Plato, Philebus 49b ff.
  12. ^ Poetics, 1449a, p. 34-35.
  13. ^ Peter Ludwig Berger Redeeming Laughter: The Comic Dimension of Human Experience (1997) p.22
  14. ^ J.Beattie, Essays (William Creech, Edinburg, 1776).
  15. ^ Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic (1900) English translation 1914.
  16. ^ Robert L. Latta (1999) The Basic Humor Process: A Cognitive-Shift Theory and the Case against Incongruity, Walter de Gruyter, ISBN 3-11-016103-6 (Humor Research no. 5)
  17. ^ John Morreall (1983) Taking Laughter Seriously, Suny Press, ISBN 0-87395-642-7
  18. ^ Brian Boyd, Laughter and Literature: A Play Theory of Humor Philosophy and Literature — Volume 28, Number 1, April 2004, pp. 1-22
  19. ^ Koestler, Arthur (1964): "The Act of Creation".
  20. ^ Salvatore Attardo (1994) Linguistic Theories of Humor, Walter de Gruyter, ISBN 3-11-014255-4; (2001) Humorous Texts: A Semantic and Pragmatic Analysis, Walter de Gruyter, ISBN 3-11-017068-X. In this book Attardo finalizes the general theory of verbal humour suggested by him and Victor Raskin in 1991: Salvatore Attardo and Victor Raskin. Script theory revis(it)ed: joke similarity and joke representation model. Humor, 4(3):293-347, 1991
  21. ^ I.M.Suslov, Computer Model of "a Sense of Humour". I. General Algorithm. Biofizika SSSR 37, 318 (1992) [Biophysics 37, 242 (1992)]; http://arxiv.org/abs/0711.2058.
  22. ^ I.M.Suslov, Computer Model of "a Sense of Humour". II. Realization in Neural Networks. Biofizika SSSR 37, 325 (1992) [Biophysics {\bf 37}, 249 (1992)] http://arxiv.org/abs/0711.2061.
  23. ^ Science 1 April 2005: Vol. 308 no. 5718 pp. 62-63 DOI:10.1126/science.1112066 http://graphics8.nytimes.com/packages/video/science/rat.mov
  24. ^ I.M.Suslov, How to Realize "a Sense of Humour" in Computers? http://arxiv.org/abs/0711.3197.
  25. ^ P. Marteinson (2006) On the Problem of the Comic, Legas Press, Ottawa, ISBN 978-1-894508-91-9
  26. ^ 2001, The Mating Mind, by Geoffrey Miller
  27. ^ Hurley, Matthew M., Dennet, Daniel C., and Adams, Reginald B. Jr. (2011). Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind. The MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-01582-0. 
  28. ^ McGraw, A. Peter, and Caleb Warren (2010). "Benign violations: Making immoral behavior funny." Psychological Science.
  29. ^ Bernard F. Dukore (2010). "Seriousness Redeemed by Frivolity: Ayckbourn's Intimate Exchanges". Journal of Modern Drama 53 (4). pp. 447–470. 
  30. ^ When Congress makes a joke: Congressional Humor as Serious and Purposeful Communication, International Journal of Humor Research. Volume 14, Issue 4, Pages 359–394, Nov 2004, Dean L. Yarwood
  31. ^ Negotiating the Serious Import of Humor, Sociometry, Vol. 32, No. 2 (Jun., 1969), pp. 169-181, Joan P. Emerson
  32. ^ Veale, Tony (2003): "Metaphor and Metonymy: The Cognitive Trump-Cards of Linguistic Humor" (Afflatus.uce.ie)
  33. ^ "Veale, Tony (2006): "The Cognitive Mechanisms of Adversarial Humor"" (PDF). Retrieved 2012-12-11. 
  34. ^ Veale, Tony (2004): "Incongruity in Humour: Root Cause or Epiphenomonon?" (Afflatus.ucd.ie)