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Jan. 19, 2011

Vol. 111, No. 6

Features

Anatomy of the funny bone

The psychology of humor

By Merrell Noden ’78
Published in the January 19, 2011, issue


Lasse Skarbovik

We don’t tend to remember poor old Sigmund Freud as a barrel of laughs. All that talk of anxiety and hysteria and neuroses is a bit of a downer (though you probably agree that Freudian slips can be hilarious – if you’re not the one making them). But Freud, it turns out, was a tireless collector and connoisseur of jokes and funny stories, both as a hobby and as a matter of professional interest.


“He makes it really clear that he appreciated good humor,” says Princeton psychology professor Susan Sugarman, who teaches several courses on Freud.  

In the late 1890s Freud told a friend that he was making a collection of “profound” Jewish jokes. He put them to good use in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, which he published in 1905. The fact that the book is one of his longest suggests how important Freud considered the subject. As he explains in the first sentence, “Jokes have not received nearly as much philosophical consideration as they deserve in view of the part they play in our mental life.”

Freud was hardly the first person to ask serious questions about humor. Theorizing about humor and laughter goes back at least to Aristotle, who believed that comedy required “base” or “ignoble” characters acting ridiculously. Following with their own theories is a long list of luminaries including Kant, Hobbes, and Schopenhauer. Understanding humor is important “because it’s so culturally pervasive,” says Prince­ton psychology professor Michael Graziano ’89 *96.  

Of course, humor is not only ubiquitous. It’s also good for us. Laughter, we are told, “is the best medicine” (which must come as a nasty surprise to those who “die laughing”).

Humor makes life sweeter and trouble easier to bear. It rates an entire chapter in Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, by University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Martin Seligman ’64 and Christopher Peterson of the University of Michigan. “It feels good to play and to make others laugh,” they point out. It is a powerful tool of social bonding: Who doesn’t want to be around people who are amusing, provided they know when to give it a rest?  

“Humor is how I choose my friends,” admits Bernard Chazelle, a professor in Princeton’s Department of Computer Science who has poured his own speculations about humor into an essay called “The Humorology of Power.”  

“I’ve heard it said that laughter functions as a tool of social bonding, that it is in fact communicable,” says Rob Kutner ’94, the head writer for the new late-night TV show Conan and author of Apocalypse How: Turn the End-Times into the Best of Times. “I think that explains why no one wants to sleep with comedians.”

But laughter, it seems, is a complex phenomenon. Even with the use of sophisticated fMRI scans that show the brain in action, lobes lighting up like a pinball machine, we don’t know exactly what is going on in our brains when we find something funny. “When you laugh, you’re in this incredibly rich context, with lots of things going on — hearing and looking and moving your body. And so the whole brain is engaged,” says Graziano. “So to find the spot that computes, ‘This is funny’ ... I don’t think that’s been done.”

As Graziano points out, locating the funny bone is hard partly because there are “six or seven fundamentally different kinds of laughter” that are used in different ways, though they probably evolved from a similar underlying behavior. “There’s cruel laughter meant to enrage people,” he says. “There’s laughter meant to reward people for saying something clever.”

Researchers find it suggestive that many patients who have suffered damage to the frontal lobe — especially on the right side — no longer understand jokes: “Given a choice of punch lines, they can’t tell which one would be funny,” says Princeton professor Samuel Wang, a molecular biologist and neuroscientist. This seems to support the theory that humor consists of a surprise followed by a reinterpretation of what’s come before. “Time flies like an arrow, but fruit flies like a banana,” Wang offers as an example.  

Freud, lacking tools like today’s fMRIs, had to extrapolate from his observations of human behavior. He posed two key questions we still ask about humor: First, when we laugh, what is it we are laughing at? And second, why do we laugh and not sigh or engage in a different behavior?  

In Jokes, Freud breaks what’s funny into three categories: jokes, the comic, and humor. He is admirably systematic in his analysis, especially of jokes, where he applies a method he calls “reduction” to try to identify exactly what makes each joke funny. By reduction, Freud means offering a kind of just-the-facts-m’a’m recounting of the relevant information in the joke but without even a pinch of comedic spice: pacing, word choice, and detail.  

Freud concluded that the pleasure we get from jokes and humor comes from the fact that we are “regaining from mental activity a pleasure that has in fact been lost through the development of that activity.” Explains Sugarman: “You’re taking a shortcut in getting from one idea to another.” In other words, a joke serves as kind of a slippery slide, whizzing us right past all the sophisticated layers of thought we’ve acquired since childhood. It takes us back to childhood and the simpler pleasures we enjoyed then, bypassing the constraints and manners we’ve built up over the years.  

“Psychologically, something very interesting has gone on, that just this manipulation of the language [i.e., the joke] tickles your funny bone,” says Sugarman. “Nobody has tickled you, and yet you’re having this physical response that involves a need to have an almost explosive discharge.” That’s where Freud’s other question comes from, she says: not just what makes a joke funny, but why is laughing what we do? There, Sugarman believes, Freud is not nearly so successful. “He doesn’t follow through as completely and elegantly as you might like,” she says.  

Tickling comes up a lot more than you might expect when serious people are analyzing humor. It’s different from other behaviors that elicit laughter, and yet it is followed by the same physical responses, among them, on a list Graziano has compiled: tear production; a hunching or forward curving of the torso; contraction of musculature around the eyes; and a ducking downward of the head.  

As any child knows, you can’t tickle yourself. Hoping to test this, researchers in England built, in what sounds like a Monty Python sketch, a machine that a human subject can use to tickle himself. It managed a successful tickle only when there was a slight delay between when the subject sent the “tickle me” signal and the initiation of physical contact. According to Wang, it’s essential that your brain not know what’s coming if you are to be tickled successfully.

Graziano looks at laughter in an evolutionary light, starting with the “brilliant proposal” by Dutch primatologist Jan van Hooff that human laughter “can be linked to open-mouthed play display in chimpanzees.” Graziano adds play-fighting to the mix. “In the hypothesis presented here,” he writes in The Intelligent Movement Machine, “human laughter is not simply a ritualized modification of a [chimp’s] play bite, but instead a ritualized modification of the entire package, both the play bite and the play defense.”  

Graziano is searching for the common behavior all laughter can be traced to, even while cautioning that the different kinds have evolved separately. “To me,” he continues, “the most likely common behavior is tickle-evoked laughter, from an origin in play-fighting, from which all these other social uses [of laughter] emerge.” That evolved into “a much larger branching tree of different kinds of laughter that we use to shape each other’s behavior in very complicated ways,” he says.

Here’s how it works. When someone tickles you, he invades your “personal space.” You squirm and giggle and even shed tears if the tickler is skillful. That array of responses signals that the tickler “has achieved a ­success in interacting with the ticklee.” The exchange of information — “You got me and can stop now” — makes laughter a powerful tool that gets reinforced each time it is used. The same information also is conveyed to others who are watching.  

Of course, as Graziano acknowledges, it’s a long way from chimps playing to someone laughing at a joke about politics. But, he writes, “Once such a signal has become established in the species, a complex and powerful dynamic is created. Each person has control of a social reward that he or she can dispense to other people. The reward is laughter.” We can reward someone with our laughter or we can withhold it, letting him or her know that “we are not amused.”  

Wang, for one, finds this theory of laughter-as-signal persuasive. “A lot of humor has that component, a safety signal,” he says. For instance, we might see a potentially awkward situation involving a person committing a faux pas that turns out not to be harmful. Or, if we were chimps, we might see an animal in the distance that we think is an enemy — before realizing it’s not an enemy, and signaling to fellow chimps that all is well. “We’ve got that wired into us, and we start building stuff up on top of it,” Wang says.  


What sounds a lot like the “Benign Violation Theory,” or BVT. The BVT is an attempt by a former Princeton postdoc, Peter McGraw, to formulate a single theory to account for all occasions for laughter. McGraw, a professor of marketing psychology at the University of Colorado, became interested in humor as a research subject in 2008, with a talk he gave on the subject of how moral violations cause disgust. He mentioned a news story about a church that was giving away a Hummer to a member of the congregation. Everybody laughed, and then one member of the audience raised a hand and asked, “You’ve said this behavior would produce disgust, and yet we’re all laughing. Why is that?”

McGraw was stumped. At first, he didn’t appreciate what a profound question it was. But a few months later, while batting around some research ideas with a graduate student, Caleb Warren, it dawned on him that humor was in fact a very important subject, and not only because so much marketing relies on it.  

The two began to read the literature on the subject. One thing that caught their eye was a paper by Stanford linguist Thomas Veatch, who argued that humor is a form of pain, but one that you don’t feel as pain because you know things actually are fine. McGraw and Warren began to fine-tune Veatch’s ideas and came up with the BVT. “The benign-violation hypothesis suggests that anything that is threatening to one’s sense of how the world ‘ought’ to be will be humorous, as long as the threatening situation also seems benign,” says McGraw. He and Warren outlined their theory in a paper called   “Benign Violations: Making Immoral Behavior Funny” in the August 2010 issue of the journal Psychological Science.  

The BVT predicts not only what is funny, but also what is not. Tickling is funny because it’s an apparent attack that quickly proves benign. But if the weird stranger sitting beside you on the bus suddenly were to tickle you, you ­probably wouldn’t laugh. For humor to work, McGraw explains, “something has to be unsettling, and it is the ­simultaneous recognition that the threatening, unsettling, or wrong situation is actually OK or acceptable that induces humor. The relief and the joy and the delight we get come from seeing how this could be bad, but it’s not. Laughter ­signals that.”

McGraw points out that you can manipulate circumstances to fit the BVT. That’s what shock comedian Sarah Silverman does. She has built a career on presenting situations that are upsetting or offensive, but she does so in a little girl’s voice that aims to soften or neutralize our disgust.  

You also can create a benign violation in the opposite way: You can take a neutral situation and inject some form of awkwardness or discomfort. That’s the formula for the old Seinfeld show, which famously was “about nothing” — but a nothing that easily could become gross, weird, or strange, according to how the writers presented it.  

“That’s why Sarah Silverman doesn’t have the broad appeal Seinfeld does,” McGraw says. “When Seinfeld fails, you’re not offended — maybe just a little bored. But when Silverman fails, you’re horrified.”  

McGraw has created an organization of students at Colorado dedicated to the rigorous study of humor. It is called the Humor Research Lab, or HuRL, and is supported partly by grants from the Marketing Science Institute. Referring to a recent explosion in studies of emotions such as anger, pride, regret, and guilt, as well as the broader topic of happiness, he predicts a similar boom in humor studies: “It would be weird to study happiness and pride and all the positive emotions and then ignore humor, which is more common than any other experience.”  

McGraw is testing his theory in a variety of ways. He is looking into how humor is used in complaints, and wants to explore the notion that there’s an inverse relationship between our distance from a violation and our chances of finding it funny. In a sense, it’s a test of Mel Brooks’ celebrated formula: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Humor is when you walk into an open sewer and die.” The group also is partnering with several of Colorado’s medical marijuana dispensaries. “We’re going to see if people find things funnier when they’re high,” he says. “That will be fun to do.”  

McGraw even is doing stand-up comedy, performing at a club in Denver called the Squire Lounge. So far, no one has died laughing, though he says he has died a little onstage.  

eter Wicks could have told McGraw that comedy is not easy. Wicks is a postdoctoral fellow in Princeton’s James Madison Program who has been doing stand-up comedy for 13 years. On a previous visit to Princeton, Wicks founded Princeton Stand-up Comedy, a now-dormant campus group he is hoping to revive this spring. Wicks also is writing a book on consequentialist moral theory, a kind of ethics that argues moral status is determined solely by the results it brings about. While he’s reluctant to mix his two worlds, he admits to having a longstanding interest in the ethics of joke-telling. “Some people want to say that comedy is somehow exempt from moral consideration,” he says. “I really want to insist that’s not the case.” Wicks believes there’s “somet hing sinister” about the way comedians work a crowd, projecting ideas of who’s not in the room and what they’re like. “‘Everyone except us is a bunch of idiots’ is a recurring come dian’s frame, and I have some worries about that. The recent rally was an example,” he says, referring to the Oct. 30 Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in Washing­ton, D.C.  

Of course, for those who feel excluded, humor can be sweet revenge. In his essay “The Humorology of Power,” Chazelle claims that humor is “fundamentally about survival.” That cer tainly helps to explain the rich trove of “profound” Jewish jokes Freud dug up. Chazelle offers this exchange to make his point about the way a good joke can speak truth to power:  

Cossack: “What’s the source of all evil?”

Rabbi: “The Jews and the chimney sweeps.”

Cossack: “Why the chimney sweeps?”

Rabbi: “Why the Jews?”

The rabbi, powerless against a Cossack, is at a colossal disadvantage. Still, he can gain at least a measure of satisfaction by wielding logic, which undermines the Cossack’s bigotry. According to Chazelle, the subtext of their exchange goes something like this: “You oppress me, but I outwit you. Shall we call it a draw?”  

As with many other theories of humor, things start with a potential conflict. Chazelle’s theory posits two worlds. In one, people put on airs, act silly, and pretend bigotry makes perfect sense. The other world is the realm of reality, governed by the laws of nature and logic, where people are equal and those who think they can defy gravity meet up with a banana peel. Comedy, or at least one type of comedy, occurs when the logical real world punctures the ridiculous one. “Physics always has to win,” he says, “or it isn’t funny.”  

That’s not how comedy feels to those who practice it. No one writes comedy according to a formula. They test material from the bottom up, relentlessly trying to find what works. “A comedian uses comedy to force everyone else to share his or her twisted sense of the world for a moment,” says Kutner, the Conan writer. “It’s like a brief hostage situation, except instead of throwing bodies out the door, you throw adverbs.”

Chazelle explains the wonder of this ubiquitous human behavior in another way: “Humans can’t fly on their own,” he says, “but they can be funny, which is the closest approximation.” 


Merrell Noden ’78 is a frequent contributor to PAW.


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