What is humour for?
Why do anarchists only drink herbal tea? Because proper tea is theft.
That’s my favourite joke, because it involves tea and politics and a pun bad enough to make you groan. It’s also gentle – it doesn’t poke fun at a person, only at the English language, which is very silly.
What makes this joke funny? (What do you mean it’s not funny? How rude. Anyway.) Psychologists have three major theories about when humour arises [i].
When something is incongruous. This incongruity often arises from violations of what is socially or culturally normal, and it’s at least somewhat important that it’s unexpected, because jokes often lose their power to make us laugh when we’ve heard them before. It seems to be specifically the clash of rational expectation and incongruous reality that is funny [ii], but there’s definitely something else going on because not everything that meets this incongruity criterion is funny: this picture of a toucan who seems to be expecting to be served breakfast is funny; Donald Trump as President of the USA is definitely not.
When we feel a sense of superiority or triumph over another person. This might happen because they have done something silly like making a harmless violation of a social norm, because we can and do use laughter as censure or social control – for example, a bully laughing at us can be powerfully uncomfortable and shaming. But not all humour is mean or controlling; some is very gentle.
To feel a sense of relief. Difficult situations like talking about taboo subjects can cause a lot of discomfort and tension, especially if they give rise to sexual or aggressive feelings which cannot be openly expressed. Laughing can release some of that tension. This might be in the form of a nervous laugh at nothing, but people often purposely say something to provoke laughter when they’re feeling uncomfortable. If you’ve ever seen me give a talk, you’ll know that I often start by trying to make people laugh. This is partly so my audience know that I am not a particularly serious person and can prepare for the inevitable onslaught of terrible jokes, but it also helps me get rid of the fear I feel every time I talk in public.
You might notice that none of these theories fully explains humour. In fact, humour probably results from a combination of these things as well as other factors like reinforcing a shared identity (one of the functions of in-jokes) and helping people remember information. We can also consider why we might have evolved humour, though this is also tricky because we don’t have time machines to check whether the ideas are correct. However, some suggestions [iii] are that humour can put potential allies in a good mood and therefore helps us to cooperate with each other, and can let others know that a potential danger was a false alarm.
What did the buffalo say when his son left for university? Bison.
Though there isn’t a lot of work on how children develop humour in different cultures, it appears to play out in much the same way no matter where you are. According to Polimeni and Reiss [iii], we begin laughing well before we are a year old, often at (surprise!) incongruity – like peekaboo, which plays on the incongruous disappearance of a face. Very young children also seem to laugh out of relief, for example during tickling, which some researchers have interpreted as the result of the relief of tension created during a mock ‘attack’ that then results in something innocuous. It takes a while for more sophisticated ideas about humour to develop, which we know because children under the age of 6 years struggle to understand the difference between lies and jokes, but by the time we’re about 8 we are starting to find things funny in the same ways that adults do.
The fact that humour begins developing at an early age suggests that it’s probably something pretty important for us as a species. So, what can humour do for us?
Where are average things made? The satisfactory.
Humour can help us regulate our emotions. A lot of the work that has been done on humour and emotion regulation has involved showing people pictures from the International Affective Picture System (IAPS), a database of pictures that have been rated by people from different countries and belonging to different age groups. Based on these ratings, each picture in the IAPS is ‘defined’ in terms of its pleasantness, how intense an emotion it evokes (regardless of what that emotion is) and how in control someone feels looking at it. The IAPS pictures are often used in psychology experiments to induce emotional states – for example, showing someone a sequence of pictures that are very unpleasant, evoke a lot of emotion and make the person viewing them feel out of control can cause someone to feel anxiety or fear.
Psychologists also use positive images like this in experiments where they want to evoke good moods. (This isn’t actually a picture from the IAPS, because IAPS images are kept out of the public domain so they’re new to the people seeing them in experiments.)
Thanks to two studies using the IAPS, we know the following:
The kind of humour you use to deal with a negative situation is important. Coming up with a comment that is positively humorous (i.e. benevolent and sympathetic) is much better at increasing positive emotions after seeing unpleasant IAPS pictures than coming up with a comment that is negatively humorous (i.e. mocking and distancing) [iv]. This doesn’t mean negative humour is unhelpful in every situation – for example, both self-enhancing and self-mocking humour can be very helpful for people living with mental illness [v].
Cartoons with humorous captions are more useful than pleasant IAPS pictures with descriptive captions if you want to recover your emotional equilibrium after seeing unpleasant IAPS pictures [vi]. This could be because the cartoons and their captions are not only positive but require you to use some brain power to understand the jokes, so they give you more to occupy your mind than pleasant pictures and straightforward captions. Unfortunately, humour being cognitively effortful can backfire in some situations! One example of this when we’re trying to resist an advertisement’s message, which is also cognitively effortful – so if the advert is also funny, we don’t have as many resources to devote to resisting that message [vii].
Why can’t you hear a pterodactyl go to the bathroom? Because the ‘p’ is silent.
When I was a lecturer I used to use humour a lot in my teaching, mostly because I am the kind of person who can and will turn anything into a joke, but partly for sound pedagogical reasons: humour makes what you’re teaching more memorable to students [viii]. The pterrible joke above is a perfect example of this; it literally reminds you how to pronounce pterodactyl.
Funnily (haha!) enough, the effect of humour on memory doesn’t seem to change depending on what mood you’re in. Though you’d think that being in a bad mood would make humour less effective as a memory aid because of the mismatch between your own mood and what’s going on around you, humour is still very helpful [ix]. However, there are limits on what humour can help you with – for example, it improves how well you recall the general gist of something, but not detailed wording [x]. And if you’re a teacher using humour, then try to restrict it to the things you most want your students to remember: out of a mixed bag of humorous and nonhumorous information, people tend to recall the humorous stuff first. Lastly, teachers should consider whether the humour they’re using is beneficial to students and not just to themselves, because it can be harmful in some cases, ranging from the obvious (culturally insensitive, derogatory or cruel humour) to the more subtle (humour is a high-level language skill so may be alienating if you’re working with people who aren’t fluent in the language you’re teaching in) [xi].
Why did the maths textbook visit a therapist? It needed help figuring out its problems.
One final thing that humour does for us is to help us live a fulfilling and ethical life – I know, this surprised me too!
In 2004, Peterson and Seligman [xii] developed a list of 24 character strengths that we can use as resources in living well. These resources appear to be cross-cultural and occur in six different domains: wisdom and knowledge, courage, humanity, justice, temperance and transcendence. Along with appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope and spirituality, humour is a transcendence strength that helps us find meaning in life and forge connections to the universe as a whole.
If you don’t feel like you’re a very humorous person, don’t worry! We all differ in terms of these character strengths and being higher or lower on one doesn’t mean you’re better or worse off than someone else. A nice example of this [xiii] is that people with Asperger’s and high-functioning autism (I’m going to call this AS/HFA) generally score lower on humour than people without AS/HFA, but the reverse is true for open-mindedness, and there are no differences between people with and without AS/HFA in terms of other characteristics like persistence and creativity, and no difference in terms of how satisfied people from each group are with their lives.
Ever wondered what makes some words funnier than others? Me too, so I made a mini-blog to complement this one! To access it, just sign up below to get an email when a new blog comes out and the link to the mini-blog will magically appear…
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[v] Bos, E. H., Snippe, E., de Jonge, P., & Jeronimus, B. F. (2016). Preserving subjective wellbeing in the face of psychopathology: buffering effects of personal strengths and resources. PLOS ONE, 11(3), e0150867.
[vii] Strick, M., Holland, R. W., van Baaren, R. B., & Van Knippenberg, A. (2012). Those who laugh are defenseless: How humor breaks resistance to influence. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 18(2), 213-223.
[xi] Hale, A. (2016). The risks and rewards of teaching with humour in Western Sydney: adapting pedagogy to complex demographics. EuroAmerican Journal of Applied Linguistics and Languages, 3(2), 22-41.