The psychological secret to humor is making immoral behavior seem harmless

A sense of humor is one of our most fundamentally human behaviors, but psychologists and philosophers alike have never really been able to satisfactorily explain why we find certain things funny. The latest theory suggests it's all about benign immorality.

University of Colorado psychologists A. Peter McGraw and Caleb Warren set out for an all-encompassing explanation of humor. That might seem like an impossible task, but they believe they've cracked the code by examining the shortcomings of previous theories of humor. For instance, Sigmund Freud thought humor came from a release of tension, while later theories held the key to comedy was a sense of superiority or incongruity.

But none of those can account for all humorous and non-humorous situations - for instance, they point out that killing your spouse would meet all three of those conditions, and yet most people wouldn't find that funny. So they added a new element to the equation - comedy comes from violating society's rules, but only if the observer feels those rules have been violated in a safe way.

McGraw uses the Three Stooges as an example of benign immorality:

"We laugh when Moe hits Larry because we know that Larry's not really being hurt. It's a violation of social norms. You don't hit people, especially a friend. But it's okay because it's not real."

Although pain-based physical comedy is one of the clearest examples, McGraw and Warren's theory also explains more sophisticated forms of comedy. In an experiment, they presented subjects with a number of potentially humorous situations. For instance, they described two scenarios in which Jimmy Dean was looking for a new spokesmen for their pork products. In the first case, a rabbi was hired, and in the second, a farmer was hired. The rabbi scenario, which features a clear moral violation of Kosher laws, was more likely to get a laugh from the test subjects.

They were also able to distinguish why some people find certain things funny while other people do not. They presented another set of scenarios, in which either a church or a credit union was raffling off a car to boost membership. Almost all participants found the church's behavior more morally dubious than that of the credit union, but there was a clear split as to whether the church scenario was funny. To participants who were also churchgoers, the scenario was no laughing matter, while non-churchgoers generally found it funny. The psychologists say this is because the non-churchgoers don't care about "the sanctity of churches", so the situation falls into the benign violation category.

McGraw also pointed out how a scenario can change from funny to not funny, using his own reaction to the smoking baby in Indonesia:

"When I was first told about that, I laughed, because it seems unreal-what parent would let their kids smoke cigarettes? The fact that the situation seemed unbelievable made it benign. Then when I saw the video of this kid smoking, it was no longer possible to laugh about it."

The psychologists also think they can stretch the meaning of "violation of norms" to include more verbal humor like puns, in which the rules of language are in some way broken or bent. As McGraw explains, this may also account for the failure of most comedies when exported to other countries:

"It's hard to find a comedy that's funny cross-culturally because the ways that violations can be benign differ from culture to culture. The comedy that is funny cross-culturally tends to involve a lot of physical humor. The violations are clear no matter who you are."

[Original Paper]