Why Do We Laugh?
I was having dinner with two friends recently. They are a couple, but as we sat down to eat, I could tell there was tension between them. They weren’t speaking to each other for the first 10 minutes of the meal and gave short answers to my questions. After a moment of pure silence, something strange happened. My body started to tremble ever so slightly. I turned my head away from my friends and coughed. I was doing whatever I could to conceal what was actually happening. I didn’t want them to know that I was… Laughing.
We know a lot about human behavior. We eat for energy to keep us moving. We breathe to bring more oxygen into our blood and to expel carbon dioxide. We blink to keep our eyes moist and sweep away dust particles.We yell to get the attention of someone or a group. We cough to clear our throats and airways of germs, mucus and dust. We shiver to warm up and we sweat to cool down.
We understand a lot about why humans do the things they do, but one behavior that isn't so easy to pin down is laughter. Why do we laugh? What purpose does it serve, and why do we seek it through friendship and humor? We laugh for many different reasons. When we hear a joke or a friend says something clever. When we’re surprised by something or there’s tension in the air and we know we really shouldn’t be laughing.
Have you ever been in a fight with someone and you both just start laughing? Or even more likely, only one of you laughs and it just makes things a whole lot worse? Some people laugh all the time and some only laugh when physically tickled. Some of us laugh at pain and suffering, and others laugh through tears. There are many routes to laughter that are all very distinct. Which is why it’s difficult to explain why we do it.
This subject hasn’t been widely discussed, but several philosophers devoted some brief consideration to the subject. Plato, for one, had a low opinion of laughter and the humor intended to inspire it. In fact, he narrowly interpreted it as a malicious act. We laugh at those who think they’re greater than they really are. In this interpretation, laughter serves as a way to point out the self-ignorance of others. This is why Plato described laughter as a form of scorn.
You can see this variety of humor online when people mock famous CEOs such as Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos. Underlying these jokes is the suggestion that these CEOs aren’t as great as they think they are. That they had a big head start in life and so don’t deserve to think so highly of themselves. Like Plato, medieval Christian institutions also condemned laughter. For the Christians, laughter was a sign of a lack of self-control. They hated it so much that when the Puritans ruled England in the mid-17th century, they outlawed comedies.
Imagine being burned at the stake for telling your mate why the chicken crossed the road. Hobbes and Descartes also described laughter as a feeling of superiority. But for these two philosophers, it was about exerting our intellectual superiority over others or our past selves. Like when people mock anti-vaxxers and flat-Earhers, or when they mock pro-vaxxers and round-Earthers. Or when that cousin at the dinner table says the Big Bang Theory is the funniest TV show and you laugh sarcastically, because you think they only said it to make everyone think they’re smart.
I think it’s fair to say that we do at least occasionally laugh from a sense of superiority, but does that cover all or even most of the instances we laugh? And is laughter such a terrible expression that it should be banned? Obviously, we don’t think this way anymore, or at least not quite as pervasively. Laughter is still a taboo in some social settings, like during a sermon or at a funeral. But we appreciate laughter more now, and even value it.
For over a hundred years we’ve been watching people make us laugh in film and television. We go to live stand-up comedy shows and sketch performances. We seek it out and are not ostracized from society for doing so. But why do we appreciate it now? What does it do to us that we find satisfying in some way? At the turn of the century, the father of modern psychology, Sigmund Freud, helped establish relief theory to try to explain why we laugh.
With this, Freud proposed that we laugh as a way to release nervous tension. All the energy we use to repress emotion becomes pent up and is released in the form of a laugh. This would help explain why I laughed nervously at a tense dinner with my friends, or why a joke about a sensitive topic can have us rolling on the floor. This reminds me of a time my brother got so mad at me that he took 50 bucks out of my wallet on the table, went to the bus station and left town. Twelve years later, he reached out to me for the first time since leaving. He said he was so relieved to hear my voice and was coming back to visit.
With tears in my eyes, I said I was so relieved to finally be getting my $50 back. Admittedly, that was not a true story. It was a joke intended to demonstrate relief theory. I set up an emotional experience by establishing that my brother was returning home for the first time in 12 years. That energy was then released when I revealed that my biggest concern was me getting back my money. Freud believed that this also explains why we find humor about sex funny because of how much we as a society, repress our sexual desires.
The release of repressive energy is so intense with a sex joke that they often get the best results: a room full of laughter. But there’s still something missing from relief theory. If we laugh from a release of repressive energy, then wouldn’t the most repressed individuals love humor? Shouldn’t people who practice abstinence be really tickled by a raunchy innuendo? Or what about parents of a 4-year-old? Shouldn’t they find their child’s potty humor hysterical?
In reality, people who enjoy sexual and aggressive humor the most are those who are most expressive about sex and violence. If that’s the case, then what makes us laugh doesn’t have a strong or necessary connection to what we repress. Those of us that mouth “nice” under our breath when we see this number (69) probably enjoy an indecent joke or two. You know who you are. And you don’t have to dig into a study to notice that many jokes that make us laugh have little to do with repressed emotions. Take this observation from the late Mitch Hedberg for example:
“I like the escalator, man. Because the escalator cannot break. It just becomes stairs.” This joke doesn’t release any repressed emotions. We typically don’t have any strong emotions built up in relation to escalators. Well, unless your shoe has gotten stuck in one. But for the rest of us, why is this joke funny? One of the dominant theories today that has been pushed by numerous philosophers over the past 200 years is incongruity theory.
Simply put, this theory explains humor as something perceived that deviates from an established expectation. Basic joke structure works in this way. You have a setup to establish an expectation. And then the punchline deviates from that expectation. Joke maker Incongruity theory does seem to explain most instances of laughter, like the time I saw a larper in line at the bank or a squirrel put its head through a bagel hole. However, there are many instances in my life that were incongruous, but not funny at all.
I was once walking near a cute-looking chained-up dog. As I passed by, I felt a sharp pain in my leg. Confused, I looked down to notice the chained-up dog was biting my ankle. The dog let go and my leg was bleeding. The situation was technically an example of incongruity, but I wasn’t laughing. I was horrified! Kierkegaard explains this by saying that the tragic violates our expectations as well as the comic. So for something to be funny, it also can’t be painful or destructive.
Incongruity theory was modified further by philosopher Michael Clark to include the condition that the person must enjoy perceiving it for it to be funny. The problem with this modification is that the theory is still too inclusive. We enjoy many deviations from our expectations that don’t make us laugh. Sometimes they’re simply bizarre or grotesque in a manner we enjoy, like when we watch a horror film, or the way the Romans enjoyed the gruesome spectacle of the Colosseum.
With many finding incongruity theory to be less than satisfying, a new general theory of humor was conceived in 2010. The authors of the benign violation theory contend that all instances of humor must contain a violation that is benign or harmless. But what does that mean exactly? Violations in this theory can be both physical and cognitive. Physical violations are things like being tickled or threats to our physical body. The cognitive are things that violate our personal dignity, societal norms, linguistic norms and moral norms.
When these cognitive thoughts or ideas are violated and we realize that the violation is harmless. It reminds me of when a friend came over for dinner the other day. I was roasting vegetables in the oven and my friend asked if the vegetables were burning. That’s when the fire alarm went off and we both laughed. So why was this funny to us in that moment? The fire alarm alerts us to a physical violation, the possibility of fire. We know that in light of our previous conversation that the violation is benign.
Our vegetables have just been in the oven for too long, and there’s no actual fire. Benign violation theory can account for most instances of humor, but can it account for all things that make us laugh? Dr. Robert R. Provine, a professor of psychology and neuroscience, put forward the idea that most laughter isn’t triggered by formal jokes, but rather by everyday communication.
In a study he conducted, Dr. Provine and some graduate students listened in on average conversations in public. What they found was surprising. Only 10-20% of laughter came from anything resembling jokes. The rest came from everyday conversation. We have to conclude then that most laughter isn’t triggered by things that are funny. Most of the time, laughter can be separated from humor.
What’s largely missing in the previous theoretical approaches to explaining laughter is the social element. We’re 30 times more likely to laugh with other people than we are alone. How many times have you watched a sitcom with people around you and laughed, and then watched that same show alone in near silence? Love it or hate it, it’s because of this exact reason that sitcoms throughout television's comedy history had laugh tracks.
The TV studios were trying to simulate the social experience of laughter, and studies have shown that they actually worked. On average, people laugh at a show more when there is a backing track. So the next time your cousin brings up Big Bang Theory for the umpteenth time, tell them to watch the show again without the laugh track so the producers aren’t telling them when to laugh, just so they can feel smart. Dr. Provine also thinks that laughter has an evolutionary purpose that is social.
Laughter eases the tension in a group with the purpose of bringing about unity. When I was at that tense dinner with my friends, it makes sense that my instinct was to laugh. More than anything, I wanted to unify the three of us as we sat in silence. Further to this point, studies have outlined that in close relationships, laughter makes people feel closer, more connected and more satisfied. It may be cliché to say, but there’s truth to the common phrase, couples that laugh together, last together.
If Dr. Provine’s evolutionary theory is true, then laughter serves a very important place in our society. To bring us together. In light of all the theories we’ve explored and studies we’ve considered, how should we go about trying to make people laugh? If we use the benign violation theory to construct a joke, we know that to make a group laugh, we need to poke fun in a well-intended way. But what if part of your audience doesn’t think your violation is harmless? What if they are hurt or offended by your joke?
When our jokes target groups of people by race or gender, for example, they might seem benign to those outside the targeted group of the joke, but what about those within it? If the evolutionary purpose of laughter is to unite a group, what are the ethical considerations with jokes that divide? This is the dark side of humor. As much as it can make people feel like they belong, it can also exclude others from the group. That’s why we have the expression, inside joke.
It’s this side of humor that Plato described as ‘scorn’. And though there’s much more to humor than Plato’s cynical take, he did consider a specific use of laughter that is real and malicious. That leaves us with an important question to consider. When we make a joke, should our aim be that everyone finds the violation harmless? And is that even possible?
In the end, all we can do is ask ourselves whether our aim is to unite people for the greater good, or to exclude others. And if the latter is the case, is it really worth it? This reminds me of a time I felt excluded by my peers. Out of nowhere they started mocking me for wearing jeans and a coffee-stained sweater. They were suddenly put off by me yelling “that’s what she said” when the mood called for it. And they really couldn't stand the way I whistled when I thought someone was hot.
Worst funeral ever.