Humor Theories

14.09.2021 |

Episode #3 of the course Humor: Science of how to be funny by David Urbansky


For millennia, people have tried to learn the secrets of what makes some things funny and others not. Let me start by saying that this mystery is still unsolved, but researchers and philosophers have some good theories that I’d like to share with you.

A recent meta-analysis of the history of humor research has identified over 20 theories [1]. These can roughly be grouped into three classes: superiority, incongruity, and relief.


Superiority Theory

The theory that we think events or qualities that elevate us over someone else are funny dates back to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who conceived of humor as “the sudden feeling of triumph which comes with the sudden perception of a superiority in us, by the comparison with the inferiority of others or our own former inferiority” [10]. So, in other words, we laugh at the misfortune, stupidity, or clumsiness of others to whom we feel superior, because in that moment we are not unlucky, stupid, or clumsy.

There is a lot of historical evidence supporting this theory. In the Middle Ages, people attended public torture and executions to amuse themselves [2], Nazi soldiers laughed at their prisoners [3], and starving African tribesmen laughed at other tribes who were suffering even more. Nowadays, we laugh at memes when a political party does or says something stupid or when a rival sports team has a mishap.

Proponents of the superiority theory argue that humor evolved through natural selection as an expression of victory in the evolutionary game of dominance [4,5].

One important note here is that the violation needs to be benign. If you watch somebody trip on a banana peel, it can be funny. But if that person breaks their neck, it suddenly stops being funny. Lots of unfortunate things happen in cartoons, but the jolly music makes it feel okay to laugh.


Incongruity Theory

Incongruity happens when two or more stimuli cannot be understood with a single processing schema, or as French mathematician Blaise Pascal wrote, “Nothing produces laughter more than a surprising disproportion between that which one expects and that which one sees” [11].

Incongruity is a mix of surprise and simultaneity (holding two conflicting ideas in your head at the same time). For example, consider the joke “Did you hear about the guy whose left side was cut off? He’s all right now.” The punch line can be interpreted that either the victim has recovered or that only the right side of his body remains [6].

The importance of surprise can be experienced when listening to a joke multiple times. The surprise is spoiled, and the joke becomes less funny.

Studies show that people find surprising word combinations funnier than unsurprising ones. For example, “hot poet” is funnier than “happy child” and “money and sex” is funnier than “love and sex” [7,8].

Incongruity can even play a role in physical humor. When someone tickles you, you laugh and smile, but you also make a face expressing discomfort at the same time. Babies can go from laughing to crying in no time when being tickled [9].


Relief Theory

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant viewed laughter as the “sudden relief of tension or expectation” [10]. Arthur Schopenhauer, another German philosopher, agreed and added that humor is “the sudden perception of a discord between reality and our idea or representation of reality” [10].

Have you ever had the feeling you lost your wallet, frantically searching all your pockets only to find it a few seconds later? This relief can be strong enough to elicit laughter—that’s what our German friends were referring to.

Relief works closely with incongruity. In a typical joke you have a setup and a punchline. The setup builds tension and the punchline relieves it.

Another way of seeing these three classes is that superiority is “ha ha” humor (laughing at someone), incongruity is “a-ha” humor (realizing something), and relief is “ahhh” humor (being relieved).

None of these theories needs to be true by itself. Humor is highly complex; oftentimes a mixture of these theories is in play.

Now that we know a bit more about the foundations of humor, we will spend the next three lessons looking at 13 tools that you can add to your comedic toolbox. This will be fun!

“Humor and seriousness are not in opposition to each other.” —Al Franken


Recommended book

Taking Laughter Seriously by John Morreall



[1] What Makes Things Funny? An Integrative Review of the Antecedents of Laughter and Amusement

[2] Laughter: A Scientific Investigation

[3] Humor: The Psychology of Living Buoyantly

[4] Ostracism and Indirect Reciprocity: The Reproductive Significance of Humor

[5] The Game of Humor

[6] The Psychology of Humor: An Integrative Approach

[7] The ‘Golden Section’: An Artifact of Stimulus Range and Measure of Preference

[8] What’s So Funny about That?: The Domains-Interaction Approach as a Model of Incongruity and Resolution in Humor

[9] Facial Expressions, Smile Types, and Self-Report during Humour, Tickle, and Pain

[10] The Anatomy of Humour by Harry Harlow

[11] Taking Laughter Seriously by John Morreall


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