Why do we have a sense of humor?
Hopes&Fears answers questions with the help of people who know what they are talking about. Today, we asked the experts about why we laugh and how we develop our taste for humor.
To break down the science of humor seems, in a sense, almost contradictory to the spontaneous nature of humor. It’s hard to explain why some people find Monty Python hilarious, for instance, while others don’t quite see the humor in a bunch of British men making wry, off-color comments to each other. A sense of humor is at once highly individualized, yet also what bonds us to others in a way nothing else does. The purpose of it can be very biological—a way of finding a compatible mate—but it can also be an indicator of emotional intelligence, and of the environment and experiences specific to an individual.
Hopes&Fears spoke to humor experts to explore the idea of what factors create and shape our sense of humor, and what the evolutionary purpose of humor might be.
Emeritus Professor of the Department of Psychology at University of North Carolina - Charlotte
We [researchers] sometimes struggle to agree on how to define a sense of humor. Most attempts at formal definitions agree that sense of humor is a multidimensional construct. We do know that the vast majority of people believe that they have an above average sense of humor, so many of us are obviously wrong in our self-assessments. Does a good sense of humor mean that you can produce humor, or is it sufficient to be someone who appreciates humor? Since not all humor is "nice", does a "good" sense of humor apply only to those who use humor nicely? I know people who have a great talent for remembering and being able to tell jokes. They are fun to be around, they make others laugh, but very little of the humor they produce is their own creation. Most people would probably view these joke tellers as having a good sense of humor. I have been told that I am funny, but I have absolutely no ability to remember a joke. What I share occurs to me more spontaneously, and is usually unplanned. It could be that these two forms of "sense of humor" come from two very different sources and life experiences. There also is some research evidence that gender differences might exist in what we see as a good sense of humor in others. Women like men
who make them laugh, but men prefer women who laugh at their humor. So, what we mean by a good sense of humor may not be a single trait or skill.
Given the ambiguity around the definition of a good sense of humor, it is difficult to determine where the sense of humor comes from. Research looking at twins suggests that there may be a genetic component, but genes do not explain a great deal of the variability in humor. Humor styles have been found to be correlated with many other personality traits, with good humor being associated with nice qualities and bad humor associated with darker and less desirable qualities. One study compared the life experiences of professional comics with a sample of college students, testing the assumption that comics may have developed their humor to deal with challenges they faced growing up. The results revealed very little difference between the two groups.
Most would probably agree that those who are perceived to have a good sense of humor tend to be creative and cognitively flexible. They can see the world through a different lens, so that they appreciate the ironies and absurdities in life. If they are able to share these views effectively with others, they will be seen as having good sense of humor. Still there may be differences among people. For some this worldview may be combined with a cheerful, optimistic perspective, while for others it may exist alongside a darker experience of the world. The humor that results may be very different, and it may appeal to different audiences.
While there are probably some exceptions—people who simply cannot or will not ever be seen as having a good sense of humor—most people, if they make the effort, can find a way to create the impression that they have a good sense of humor. Being perceived as having a good sense of humor has been shown to provide many social benefits, so it is worth the effort. The easiest strategy to build your case for having a sense of humor is to laugh at the humor attempts that others make. My own research has shown that laughing at another's joke can overcome other factors that may make you unappealing, since you obviously have a good sense of humor if you like my jokes! A more active effort would involve spending time learning some jokes that you can share. Stealing other people's humor and using it socially can be effective. While your sense of humor, in this case, may be less "natural," it can still be a valuable social tool.
I will end with a final caveat, since I believe being funny or sharing borrowed humor represents a limited view of "sense" of humor. The true master, with the ideal "sense" of humor, knows when to use humor and when not to use humor. Sensing when humor is an appropriate or inappropriate response and being able to provide or withhold that humor, represents a true SENSE of humor.
W. Larry Ventis
Psychology Professor at the College of William & Mary; President of the International Society for Humor Studies
I think there’s a fair consensus in the field of humor scholarship that humor is an outgrowth of play behavior. Other animal species show play behavior, but it’s typically physical behavior—like with chimpanzees there’s usually play fighting. People tend to assume that we have just generalized play to the mental sphere from physical play because we have more mental ability, so we can play with ideas and thoughts. That’s a very general perspective on how humans’ humor emerged.
Physical play is generally thought to be enhancing of a variety of skills. For instance, if chimps play fight, it’s very clear they’re not trying to harm each other, they’re just kind of enjoying interacting. It can serve to foster development of a number of possible skills; it can foster muscle development and other social skills like getting along with others and collaborating.
Humor, which is play in the mental sphere, can foster various kinds of thought, and some people have speculated that humans are perhaps the only ones who can generate multiple possibilities of how a situation might play out. Humor is kind of a specific representation of this type of skill, and it can be very adaptive in order to eliminate sort of erroneous kinds of projections of how things might eventually resolve. In the context of humor—particularly jokes—you start with one perspective on what is anticipated, you arrive at the punchline, and you have to come up with a different perspective. Intrinsically, humor fosters flexibility in thought, and resolves some competing possibilities of the most satisfying resolution. Analogies come between the “ha ha” response in regards to jokes and humor, and the “a-ha” response in problem solving where it’s not necessarily something that’s funny, but it’s a parallel kind of mental situation. To some extent, I think you can see humor as practice at switching to and using the more thorough, rational, reflective thought.
We’ve speculated that one evolutionary purpose of a sense of humor is that it’s a signal for intelligence in mate selection. We can judge if a person can play with ideas, if they’re cooperative, and certainly evolutionary psychology suggests that sense of humor sort of reflects one’s intelligence. It’s common knowledge that a very popular request on dating sites is that people request someone with a sense of humor or say “I have a good sense of humor,” so it’s very commonly featured in a context where people are looking for potential mates.
Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not; a sense of humor to console him for what he is.”
- Francis Bacon
Psychology Professor at University of Calgary
Most of our research has been on figurative forms of humor—sarcasm and irony, or jocularity, where people aren’t saying exactly what they literally mean. It raises some interesting questions about the psychology of how their words are interpreted and why those interpretations are produced. But we do have some data from our research with children on what prompts kids to play with language earlier, trying out sarcasm of their own. The genetic question is a tough one. My speculation would be that there are certainly temperaments based in genetics that make people more prone to pick up on this kind of verbal play.
But we certainly find that it does tend to co-occur in family interactions. We’ve done studies where we have parents interacting with children on kind of a frustrating task, and found that there’s definitely higher incidences if mom or dad or one of the kids is using sarcasm; it’s something that gets picked up by other people in the conversation. That would suggest that a lot of it gets started early in terms of the way you experience early interactions, the approach that your parents, caregivers or older siblings take to the things that happen everyday.
It’s probably a mix, but certainly we have better evidence about the role of family and kind of social interaction that set up our sense of humor or particular approach to things.
One of the things we found is that we can have a typically developing five year old who’s extremely proficient at understanding sarcasm and other senses of humor, and then we can have an 8 year old who’s also very, very bright, but is just not necessarily picking up on it in the same way. It’s not like certain kinds of cognitive achievements where you can say that, ok, at age four most typically developing kids are going to have a theory of mind, or something like that. This seems to develop over a longer window, which suggests that it’s not so dependent on intellectual skills and perhaps more dependent on the kinds of experiences that child has had.
We find that these things are culturally universal; obviously every culture that we know of has humor and has a kind of sarcasm, as far as we know from the data. You can visit another culture and think, “Wow, the usual visual cues that I get when humor is intended [aren’t there.]” To get to the point [in a language] when you can pick up the humor, that indicates that you’ve really become proficient. There does seem to be variation more in the type across cultures, and I think that same things probably happens across families. There’s variability in the types of humor, jokes, and sarcasm that people like to use. You get good at using the ones that are part of your family narrative.
There’s lots of evidence in the record from ancient Greece; the term “sarcasm” comes from Greek, so it does seem to be certainly ancient. I think one of the roots of humor is that we tend to expect things to go well. One of the ways we survive as humans is to be fairly optimistic. We try crazy things because we think “Hey, this might work.” We do all sorts of things that kind of defy logic because we have this fundamental optimism. A lot of the times, things don’t go quite as you would have expected, and sarcasm gives us a way to comment on the fact that things haven’t gone as planned. Just one verbal utterance is a way to comment on what happened and what you thought might have happened.
Certainly it serves all kinds of purposes in relationships. When you use humor and you know the other person’s going to get it, there’s a real positive, bonding sort of affect that comes out of that experience. Certainly, it can be a relationship destroyer when you use humor with the intention of making sure the other person doesn’t quite understand what you mean. Humor can be extremely biting, but it can also serve that bonding purpose, too. Looks fade and people go through all kinds of crazy things in their lives, but a sense of humor is one thing that doesn’t change that much.
Benign Violation Theory (aka the theory of humor)
Humor occurs only when three conditions are met:
A situation is a violation
A situation is benign
Both situations occur simultaneously
This theory can also explain why things aren’t funny: a situation can fail to be funny if, for instance, it depicts a violation that is more threatening than safe, or, on the flip side, perhaps the joke fails because a situation is too benign.
Director of the Humor Research Lab, University of Colorado Boulder
From the research that we’ve done in the lab, we’ve learned that humor arises from things that are wrong yet ok, threatening yet safe, confusing yet make sense, or as we say “benign violations.” That notion is an important one to try to explain some puzzles that exist with regards to humor; one puzzle, for instance, is why is it that a humor attempt, even a good-natured humor attempt, can fail and can fail in one of two ways. It can fail in a way that bores an audience, or ways that offend an audience. If something bores an audience, that situation is benign; there’s nothing threatening about a knock-knock joke. If a humor attempt offends an audience, there’s nothing benign about it; the situation is purely a violation, like a racial joke in many circumstances.
One of the further puzzles in the humor world is how is it that the very same joke can make one person laugh, another person yawn, and another person cry. That is, there are these vast individual differences in what people find funny. Our sense of humor changes throughout the lifespan; we’re not laughing at the same jokes that we laughed at when we were six years old, nor are we laughing at the same jokes we laughed at when we were 18. The question becomes, why is that the case? While there are things that feel close to universal—for instance tickling—that are benign violations, it can be laughter-inducing when done in a way that’s not too aggressive and done by someone you trust. You see variance across culture, so comedies don’t travel very well to Asia and Europe from the United States, and the ones that do tend to focus on more universal struggles in the world.
Our sense of humor is, in many ways, very much like a snowflake in that it’s unique to the individual because it’s based on what we see as wrong, and what we see as ok, and the things that we see as wrong or ok depend on our culture, social norms, and our own personal experiences and values. Of course those things change with time. The things that are ok now may not be ok 20 years from now. While cultures change, so do individuals. One day someone is laughing at a dead baby joke, the next day his wife is pregnant and now that dead baby joke doesn’t seem funny anymore. It’s a lot easier to laugh and make jokes when you’re in a good mood, when you’re happy and the world seems less threatening. Even the same person, at different points in the day, is going to be more or less likely to engage in humorous activities.
It’s very difficult to predict who’s going to be funny. Gender is a terrible predictor of who’s going to be funny; the research is pretty clear that the difference between men and women is mostly in people’s beliefs than reality. The one good predictor of who is funny is intelligence. That makes sense because this notion of being quick-witted is to be able to recognize there’s an opportunity to capitalize on. Having the creativity necessary to bring together two ideas, that something is wrong and that something is ok, together in the mind of your audience takes a bit of creativity to do, and smart people tend to be creative in that way. I think an interesting thing about this notion of emotional intelligence—it hasn’t been well-tested, but I do believe it to be true—is that people who are emotionally intelligent are very in touch with not only their own experience, but the experience of others. When you think about it, if your goal is to make people laugh, you have to fundamentally understand who those other people are. You’re reading your audience, and people who are good at doing that should know when not to tell a joke, or what joke might be more useful in a certain setting.
The downside of the internet is that there are a lot of jokes being told that are reaching people who were never intended to be reached. What happens is a comedian tells an off-color joke in a comedy club, and the nature of that experience, the two-drink minimum, the previous joke, the darkness [of the club], has people laughing in response to that joke. If that joke is recorded and put on YouTube, or someone repeats the joke in a tweet, and say a hundred thousand people learn about this sitting in their brightly lit office, sober, not the target of the joke, and are outraged by the insensitivity of not only the comedian but the audience. You move from the comedy club as a safe space to that not being the case.
I think the downside of the internet is relatively modest compared to its upside. One thing that I think is wonderful about the internet in comedy is that it allows people who wouldn’t normally be able to be exposed to [certain kinds of humor] to now reach them. Imagine you’re a kid growing up in Ames, Iowa. Back in the day, maybe you could get Steve Martin’s album at the record store, but now because of Twitter you can follow 1,000 comics and you could find 10 of the most amazing comics you would never have found. You have a chance to feel like you fit in again, when you didn’t fit in before. You can learn about comedy in ways that you wouldn’t have been able to before. Because there’s more channels than ever—maybe the overall quality isn’t higher—but the chance for you to find something that’s high quality has gone up. You’re seeing this in television; a show like Orange Is the New Black, which really is a dark comedy, and it would be a tough show to be on network television, but there’s a place for it now—and I think that’s really exciting.
I’m against picketing, but I don’t know how to show it.
author of The Psychology of Humor: An Integrative Approach
When thinking about where a sense of humor comes from, we first need to think about what exactly we mean by a "sense of humor." We often use this term, but it's actually quite a nebulous concept and has a lot of different meanings. For example, when we say someone has a "good sense of humor," we might mean they're good at making up jokes and clever, witty remarks that make others laugh. Or we could mean it's someone who laughs a lot and is generally cheerful and up-beat. Or it could be someone who doesn't take herself too seriously and is able to laugh off embarrassing situations. Or someone who is able to find humor in stressful situations. Or we could be referring to the particular types of humor the person prefers, as when we say someone has a "wacky sense of humor" or a "dry sense of humor." After studying humor for more than 35 years, I've come to the conclusion that "sense of humor" is not one single thing; it involves a lot of different kinds of humor-related abilities, traits, preferences, etc. Interestingly, these different "dimensions" of humor are not necessarily correlated with one another. Those who enjoy laughing a lot at other people's humor are not necessarily very good at making others laugh. People can be very witty in some situations, but they fly off the handle and lose their sense of humor completely when things go wrong. Et cetera.
So when we ask where does a sense of humor come from, there are different answers for different aspects of humor. Like all personality traits and abilities, it's a combination of heredity and environment, but the proportion of these two influences differs, depending on the way we define a sense of humor. For example, if we define it in terms of the kinds of humor someone enjoys, research has shown that it's all environmental. Genes don't influence whether you prefer slapstick comedy versus puns versus canned jokes, for example; these preferences are largely learned in the family environment that you grew up in and later environmental influences. However, if we define sense of humor in terms of the tendency to be always saying funny things and making others laugh, there's a strong genetic component to that, along with some environmental influence as well.
The different aspects of sense of humor are also related to different broader personality traits, which in turn are partly determined by genetics. For example, the tendency to tell jokes and make others laugh is strongly related to the broader personality trait of extroversion, which has a sizable genetic loading. Extroverted people are much more likely to be the "life of the party" than introverts. But that doesn't mean introverts have no sense of humor. They can be highly attuned to irony and frequently amused by things, but they don't necessarily feel the need to be always making others laugh. Again, these are very different ways of defining sense of humor, but who's to say one is better than the other? If we think of sense of humor as an ability (i.e. the ability to generate humorous remarks, jokes, etc.), it is only slightly related to intelligence, and more strongly related to general creativity. People who are good at creating humor tend to be creative in other areas as well; they're the ones who are able to "think outside the box." Other broad personality traits, such as agreeableness, also influence a person's sense of humor. People who are high on agreeableness engage in a gentle, warm kind of humor that others find appealing; whereas those who are low on agreeableness might be just as funny, but their humor is often biting, caustic, and sarcastic.
What is the evolutionary purpose of a sense of humor? I've thought about this a lot, and I think there's good reason to believe that humor evolved as a means of enhancing social cohesion in groups of people. Humans are fundamentally a social animal: we evolved in small groups and we need other people to survive. So we have a number of characteristics that evolved to help maintain social connections and reduce interpersonal friction. Humor is accompanied by a unique positive emotion referred to as "mirth." Laughter is the way we express this emotion to others, and the sound of laughter also triggers this emotion in listeners. This is why laughter is so enjoyable and also so contagious. If you hear others laughing, it's difficult not to laugh yourself. Laughter is largely a social phenomenon: people rarely laugh when they're alone. When we laugh with other people we feel close to them. Interestingly, humans are not the only ones who laugh—laughter also occurs in other primate species such as chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas. In these animals, it accompanies various kinds of rough-and-tumble play (chasing, tickling, play fighting, etc.), and is a signal of friendship and pleasure. This sort of playful interaction helps to build bonds between individuals in a group. So laughter has a long evolutionary past. I think that what we call humor is essentially an extension of these kinds of playful physical activities. As humans evolved language, they extended these playful activities into linguistic forms of play, leading to joking, telling one another funny anecdotes and experiences, friendly teasing, etc., which in turn generates the feelings of mirth and the response of laughter, which helps to strengthen the social bonds between people.
There's also a negative side to all this. We evolved in small groups which also competed, often very violently, with other groups. So humor and laughter not only enhance bonds within a group, they are also often used to target those who are outside the group. We laugh along with our friends to make fun of our enemies. This is why laughter can often be directed at those who are perceived as different in some way, and jokes often make fun of various disadvantaged minorities, women, disabled people, gays and lesbians, etc. So humor and laughter can be a weapon as well as a blessing.