What Makes Something Humorous

Speculating about the causes of mirthful laughter in human adults, Darwin noted that ''[s]omething incongruous or unaccountable, exciting surprise and some sense of superiority in the laugher, who must be in a happy frame of mind, seems to be the commonest cause.'' In comparing laughter arising from actual tickling and that arising from the tickling of the imagination, he noted:

From the fact that a child can hardly tickle itself, or in a much less degree than when tickled by another person, it seems that the precise point to be touched must not be known; so with the mind, something unexpected—a novel or incongruous idea which breaks through an habitual train of thought—appears to be a strong element in the ludicrous.

Darwin's insights anticipate many subsequent theoretical accounts of humor. With respect to its cognitive basis, an early formulation of the mechanisms underlying humor may be found in the work of a Gestalt psychologist, Norman Maier. Maier noted that a key element of humor is a sudden and unexpected restructuring of the elements of a configuration, not unlike that experienced during a flash of insight. A humorous narrative manipulates our expectations by leading us down a garden path only to present us with an altogether different conclusion than the one we were led to expect. Inasmuch as the conclusion disrupts the way in which we have been thinking about the events in the narrative, we are totally unprepared for it. After a momentary confusion of thought, we experience the newly restructured configuration with clarity; the amusement arises when we realize how we were misled. In 1992, Wyer and Collins proposed that diminishment is a key element in humor elicitation: For humor to be elicited, the new perception of the situation must in some sense be diminished in importance in comparison to the apparent reality that was first assumed.

Subsequent theorists have elaborated on these accounts. For example, cognitive approaches characterize humor perception in information processing terms as involving at least two and possibly three stages: a setup stage, a stage in which the incongruity is recognized, and a stage of incongruity resolution. Although there is debate regarding whether humor appreciation requires that the incongruity be satisfactorily resolved (with some arguing that incongruity recognition per se is sufficient to experience humor), theorists generally agree on the importance of the juxtaposition of two or more mental representations for humor to be perceived, following Arthur Koestler, who, in The Act of Creation, described humor as an example of bisociative thinking, which juxtaposes and brings together two disparate matrices of thought. Recent theoretical formulations in cognitive science have used concepts such as frame shifting and conceptual integration of mental spaces to formalize the processes underlying humor perception. To date, there has been little cognitively oriented experimental research on humor comprehension and even less on the processes underlying humor generation.

It has also been acknowledged that it is not enough to postulate incongruity as a prerequisite of humor because, in certain situations, incongruity may give rise to other emotional reactions, such as fear or apprehension, rather than humor. A humorous rather than apprehensive reaction is more likely when the receiver does not have too much invested in the content of the humor—that is, when the humor does not threaten the receiver's beliefs or feelings in any profound or disturbing way. Second, a humorous reaction is more likely when the receiver was led to expect something dangerous that turns out not to be. Indeed, Rama-chandran suggests that laughter may have evolved as a false alarm signal—that is, as an immediate signal to conspecifics that some potentially threatening event has trivial rather than terrifying implications. This notion is similar to the diminishment view of humor developed by Wyer and Collins.

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