The Science of Humour

by InnerHour on Fri, 09 Apr 2021
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The beginning of April always focuses on a key aspect of human expression: humour. As April Fools’ Day approaches, friends prepare to play mischievous pranks on each other, hilarious memes spread like wild-fire across social media, and the month begins on a light-hearted note. The joys of humour prevail. 

So what is humour? What are the psychological underpinnings of this fundamental form of communication? Are there different styles of humour? Is humour always beneficial or can it occasionally be detrimental? Let’s explore the nuances of humour and try to break down the science behind it. 

First and foremost: what is humour? 

Humour is the ability to identify or express certain words or actions as funny. It is both - a form of entertainment as well as a coping mechanism for life’s trials and tribulations. While humour is most closely associated with the act of laughing, it can sometimes be serious, or awkward, or even offensive. Beyond its various styles and forms, humour is ultimately about human connection; it can either create and fortify bonds, or weaken and break them.

For many years, philosophers and psychologists have tried to elucidate the ways in which humour functions. In their book, The Psychology of Humour, Psychologists Rod Martins and Thomas Ford explain the three main theories pertaining to humour: Relief Theory, Superiority Theory & Incongruity Theory. We will also explore a fourth theory called the Theory of Benign Violations. 

The Relief Theory of Humour

In 1709, a British politician called Anthony Ashley Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury first conceptualised the Relief Theory in one of his essays.  Through his writing, he explains the way in which humour functions as a form of tension release. Over the centuries, philosophers and psychologists have agreed with the idea that laughter eases pressure, especially in a stressful situation. Biologically, the respiratory and muscular process involved in laughing discharges pent-up anxiety. Many of us can think of situations where the stress levels have reached a breaking point and we are in need of some form of comic relief. In those high-strung instances, we might welcome the sudden and unexpected joke that allows our muscles and mind to simply relax. 

The Superiority Theory of Humour

According to this theory, humour can enhance a person’s self-worth and self-confidence - but often at the expense of others. In certain circumstances, laughter demonstrates a person’s sense of superiority over another person. In fact, laughter can  even express a sense of superiority over one’s former self. We may all be able to recall an instance or two in our lives where we wished a certain friend or family member had not laughed at something silly we said or did. This is because such situations were funny at our expense - and that’s not a feeling anyone likes to experience! 

The Incongruity Theory of Humour

Finally, Martins and Ford describe humour as a response to the way in which we interpret and perceive the world. The Incongruity Theory posits that “incongruity” - that is, a discrepancy - between what we expect and what really happens is what leads to humour. The unpredicted outcome, the unexpected punch line, the unanticipated action might lead to humour. Surely we can think of situations when someone said or did something unexpectedly, which made us erupt into laughter. 

The Theory of Benign Violations 

In 1998, a Stanford University researcher named Tom Veatch claimed that humour occurs when something is distressing but also non-threatening at the same time. This theory explains why one may laugh when someone trips, but only if the person is actually unharmed. The moment the incident is no longer benign i.e. the moment it does, in fact, become threatening, it ceases to be funny. This theory further explains how humour helps human beings deal with potentially stressful situations.

So, what kinds of humour do we use?

Stemming from these theories, unique styles of humour have emerged. There are four key styles that we  use in our daily lives: Affiliative, Aggressive, Self-Enhancing and Self-Defeating. 

Affiliative Humour 

This style of humour is inclusive and often endearing. The main objective in Affiliative humour is to unite people and help them find humour in the mundane - the traffic jam that just won’t end, the loud banging of construction outside your window, the tube-light that just won’t stop blinking! By finding humour in the everyday nuisances - little things we have all dealt with at some point or another - this style of humour engenders a sense of camaraderie and fellowship, cheerfulness and well-being. 

Aggressive Humour 

This style of humour targets another person, and demeans or belittles them. A joke is often at the expense of someone, and the joker is laughing “at”, rather than “with”, the other person. Bullies often use this form of humour. At its worst, aggressive humour can be threatening and psychological devastating for the recipient. Studies show that on-lookers to this style of humour might laugh only to mask their own discomfort in the situation.

We all understand aggressive humour and may have even fallen prey to it (as doer or receiver). Combating it, and preventing ourselves from ever using it, begins with naming it and understanding the negative consequences of it .

Self-Enhancing Humour 

This style of humour is often used as a healthy coping mechanism. The humour is directed at oneself in a good-natured, harmless manner. In challenging situations, or when things do not go as planned, this style of humour is used to lighten the mood and boost morale. 

Self-Defeating Humour 

This style of humour is often rather unhealthy. The humour is directed at oneself, but in a self-deprecating and demeaning manner. The target of bullies often use this form of humour to preempt the joke, and make fun of themselves before the bully has a chance to do so. This style of humour can be psychologically harmful as it erodes a person’s self-confidence and self-esteem. 

The next time you think, “He has a sense of humour,” take a minute to reflect on what kind of humour he might be using. The hope is that we all use styles of humour that not only benefit others, but also protect ourselves. 

What are the benefits of humour? 

Having delved into the psychological nuances of humour, it is perhaps equally important to consider how humour functions in our daily lives. What are the true benefits of laughing and finding humour, even in difficult situations?

Humour’s positive impact on mental health

Humour acts as a tension-release mechanism. Laughing releases feel-good chemicals called endorphins, which are responsible for elevating our mood and protecting us from painful feelings. In fact, research suggests that humour can boost resilience, because in dire situations, it encourages hope and positive thinking. Among medical professionals such as nurses who witness human suffering on a daily basis, humour has been found to reduce emotional exhaustion and to encourage the expression of emotions. 

Similarly, ‘gallows humour’ – a term that is used to refer to morbid or ironic humour that occurs in hopeless situations – has benefited emergency medical personnel in times when they have witnessed the loss of life. Such humour has been found to build social cohesion in these painful moments by enabling medical personnel to recognise that they are not alone.

Humour’s effect on physical well-being 

Humour’s positive impact on mental health is directly linked to the physical responses that humour causes in our bodies. Laughing lowers cortisol levels (the stress hormone) while releasing endorphins and dopamine (happiness hormones), particularly in social situations. The calming effect of endorphins signals safety and stability to our brains, leading us to relax physically.  In fact, some studies have shown that laughing can actually boost our immune system - thereby protecting us from physical illnesses. 

Humour’s overarching ability to strengthen relationships 

Finally, humour fortifies all kinds of relationships. It breaks the ice among new acquaintances and strengthens bonds among old friends. It helps connect colleagues or bridge the gap across generations. Humour also helps maintain relationships by improving memory. It allows a person to recall or recognise certain events or people more clearly, and in doing so, helps preserve age-old connections. 

The ability to use humour to strengthen relationships is a unique skill. It is built over time, like an art form that requires constant attention and nurturing. Yes, some individuals are naturally gifted with positive styles of humour that bring people together. Others need to work on curbing their use of self-defeating or aggressive humour. 

At the end of the day, bringing humour into our daily lives requires awareness - of ourselves and of others. It requires us to think about what is truly funny versus potentially offensive, and what will make someone (and ourselves) feel warm and confident rather than small and unwanted. When humour is used in a thoughtful manner, it can be a powerful force for dealing with life’s ups and downs. 

References: 

  1. University of Turku. (2017). Social laughter releases endorphins in the brain. ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/06/170601124121.htm 

  2. Lonczak, H.S. (2021). Humor in Psychology: Copy and Laughing Your Woes Away. PositivePsychology. https://positivepsychology.com/humor-psychology/

  3. Hakim, A.C. (2021). The Power of a Good Laugh. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/working-difficult-people/202102/the-power-good-laugh

  4. Riggio, R.E. (2015). The 4 Styles of Humour. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/cutting-edge-leadership/201504/the-4-styles-humor

  5. Morreall, J.(2020). Philosophy of Humor. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2020/entries/humor/

  6. Psychology Today. (2021). Humor. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/basics/humor

  7. Snow, S. (2014). A Quest to Understand What Makes Things Funny. The New Yorker.  https://www.newyorker.com/tech/annals-of-technology/a-quest-to-understand-what-makes-things-funny

  8. Cooper, A.A. (2017). An Essays on the Freedom of Wit and Humour - a letter to a friend. Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times. https://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/shaftesbury1709a_1.pdf 

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