The psychology of Humor or “how to kill a joke 101”

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Are you the humorous one in your social group? Do you try to be funny? I know I try. But let’s be honest, those puns about ‘pineapple fine-apple’ really do not cut it, I’m sorry. Jokes aside, humor is part and parcel of everyday life. And who doesn’t love laughing (except Aparna)? We desire humor in daily communication, learning processes, organizational management, hospitals, and dates. Humor is a vital social phenomenon. Let us explore the psychology of humor and the benefits of being funny. Fair warning: Explanations can kill a joke.

Aparna from the Netflix show Indian Matchmaking

Most of us watch comedy in some mode of entertainment. Be it stand-up comedies or reaction videos to sitcoms like FRIENDS or The 70’s Show or YouTube comments and essential memes. Besides being a mode of entertainment, it has a more vital role as a mechanism to counter stress and increase psychological well-being. And if this doesn’t convince Aparna that humor is valuable, then maybe this will – ‘90% men and 81% women desire a sense of humor in their partner.

What is Humor?

Humor is a social lubricant; it helps ease social situations through a sense of vulnerability and authenticity. It’s the mental faculty of discovering, expressing, or appreciating the ludicrous or absurdly incongruous (Merriam-webster.com). Incongruity in humor is something that feels out of place, odd, or is unexpected from a logical, predictable, or familiar point of view. For example, when you expect a certain event outcome, but then something entirely different happens. Mark Twain quite rightly explained humor saying, “Humour is the great thing, the saving thing after all. The minute it crops up, all our hardnesses yield, all our irritations, and resentments flit away, and a sunny spirit takes their place.” Everyone knows that you’ve stabbed your joke to death the minute you start explaining it, but social scientists did exactly that! Fortunately, the psychology of humor is not a joke so you won’t be disappointed.

Theories of Humor

  1. Relief Theory: As predictable as a Netflix movie, it states that humor acts as a channel of release (for nervous energy). It’s a way to blow off some steam.
  2. Superiority Theory: This theory talks about why we laugh at others’ misfortunes – for the sole purpose of showing superiority. Also known as Schadenfreude.
  3. Incongruous Juxtaposition Theory: The incongruity theory suggests that something is humorous when things that don’t usually go together to replace logic and familiarity.
  4. Rapid Anxiety Reduction (RAR): RAR states that humor is the feeling of rapid anxiety reduction. It elucidates that humor is experienced as pleasurable and reinforcing because a negative affective state is removed.
  5. The General Theory of Verbal Humor (GTVH): According to the GTVH theory, six types of knowledge sources are needed to detect whether a text is humorous or not. These sources are script opposition, the logical mechanism, the situation, the target, the narrative strategies, and the language. Script opposition (opposite ideas in a context) is usually dependent on one’s culture.
  6. Tri-component Theory of Humor: Humor processing comprises of humor comprehension (incongruity and resolution), humor appreciation (amusement), and humor expression (laughter). Humor is made up of cognition, affect (emotions), and laughter/expression (or a silent lol). Mental representations (schemas) are activated for each element and the context in a situation/meme/joke/action. We then notice the incongruity. After that, our attention shifts the schema context toward the humorous aspect because of ambiguity, gap, or exaggeration, and that leads to amusement. For example, time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.

Types of Humor

Rod Martin has classified four types of humor: affiliative humor, aggressive humor, self-enhancing humor, and self-defeating or disparaging humor.

  1. Self-disparaging (self-deprecating humor) humor indicates disparaging remarks aimed at oneself to evoke the listener’s amusement. (e.g., “He asked me if I knew a good plastic surgeon. If I did, I’m sure I would not look like this! “)
  2. Aggressive humor includes putting down a targetted individual or group and can psychologically harm then and be viewed as threatening. 
  3. Affiliative humor is humor that everyone enjoys and includes a sense of well-being, comfort, and happiness.
  4. Self-enhancing humor is the ability to laugh at yourself when something embarrassing or bad happens to you. For example, if you are wrong about a fact and claim it to be true, you probably just sigh and say, “Well, I can’t be the smart one all the time!”

Now, to answer the big question – does humor help you out in any way? Well, the answer is a big YES!

The Psychology of Humor

Humor & Intelligence

I think the notion that one has to be smart to be funny has always existed, and it has support from research. Humor does require cognitive ability to produce as well as comprehend jokes. A recent study says that general and verbal intelligence predicts the ability to create humor and, it can be a sign of intelligence. The relationship between self-disparaging humor and intelligence is, however, negative. Research suggests that people judge a humorous self-disparager to be less intelligent, witty, and confident. However, self-disparaging humor has gained attraction because of sitcoms, movies, and stand-up comedy.  There is also a cause and effect relationship between a part of intelligence and humor – humor can improve memory.

Humor & Self-Esteem

In a recent study, self-esteem was positively correlated with self-enhancing humor and affiliative humor but not with self-defeating and aggressive humor. Another study confirmed this insight. Their results indicated that high self-esteem is associated with higher use of affiliative, aggressive, and self-enhancing humor styles, but lower self-defeating humor. A study by Stieger, Formann & Burger shows that self-defeating humor positively correlates with loneliness, shyness, depression, but negatively with self-assessed self-esteem. Their research also suggests that people with “damaged” self-esteem are similar to those who use self-defeating humor. Damaged self-esteem means there is a vast difference between how you feel about yourself and how you present yourself to the world. Feeling very confident but showing low confidence behavior is a sign of damaged self-esteem.

Humor & Leadership

Many of us desire to be great leaders or follow great leaders. If you’re a boss or one of the higher-ups, then I’m sure you want a mug from your employees stating that you’re the best boss ever (unlike Michael Scott from The Office who had to give it to himself). Evidence suggests that humor is linked with higher perceived confidence, competence, and status. Thus, we can conclude that humorous people are more influential. Humour is a powerful tool that helps people listen, communicate better, and it also aids learning. Successful leaders use humor not only to enhance group cohesiveness but also to foster a healthy work culture. People perceive those with appropriate human to be more confident and competent. That could also translate into other’s mentally amplifying the status of a humorous leader. Something as simple as laughter, when it’s loud and variable in tone or higher in pitch, increases perceived status. The notion is that the leader is more comfortable expressing emotions. It explains why companies like Facebook, Google, and Southwest Airlines appear as fun places to work. And at the same time, their employees are less likely to suffer from burn-out.

Humor & Attraction

Many desire a partner who can make them laugh. Humour is a sign of attraction and a desirable trait during mate selection. There is evidence that people consider affiliative humor attractive in long-term relationships and aggressive humor in short-term relationships.

Emotional & Psychological well-being

Laughter may just be the best medicine. The results of the study ‘Promoting emotional well-being through the use of humor’ revealed that humor led to a significant increase in several markers of emotional well-being: self-efficacy, positive affect, optimism, and perceptions of control. Clinical psychologists are using humor as a treatment to improve subjective well-being. In fact, humor is a way to stop negative thoughts. The ‘Broaden & Build Theory’ by Barbara Fredrickson also supports this idea. Another study conducted by Martin & his colleagues offers empirical support – humor buffers against stress and plays a facilitative role in enhancing the enjoyment of positive life experiences. Overall, humor and high self-esteem go hand-in-hand.

Humor & Social acceptance

Humor can help children get accepted by a group. A more recent study suggests a high sense of humor reduces the social distance between members of a group. It increases the desire to interact in the future. Children who were rated as more humorous were also perceived as less socially distant consistently among both genders. Humor helps facilitate social acceptance and reduce social distance. Being funny will do you good in the long run. And it’ll help you make friends and get accepted by social groups.

Humor in healthcare

A recent study concluded that the benefits of humor are recognized by adult cancer patients and nurses. Humor has a therapeutic effect in clinical practice. Research reaffirms the common belief that humor is an important coping mechanism and a tool of adjustment. A study also highlighted the potential advantages of humor in high-stress service situations (children) with an ethical imperative of doing no harm. Battrick & colleagues conducted a study in 2013 where they recorded the perceptions of children, parents, nurses, doctors, and other health-care staff in a children’s hospital. They concluded that the majority of children liked playing with clowns during their hospital stay. The majority of parents and pediatricians believed that clown-dressed doctors had a positive impact on the children and their families.

Humor as an effective coping mechanism

Humour can be a psychological shield. A 1993 study says that humor is an important coping mechanism and a tool of adjustment. Emil Fackenheim, philosopher and Auschwitz survivor, highlights the importance of humor by saying that humor helped them keep morale up (Hitler’s Death Camps: The Sanity of Madness, 1981).1 In a study by Ostrower (1998) where a Holocaust survivor was interviewed, researchers quote – “When I was interviewed for Spielberg and they asked me, what I thought was the reason I survived, they probably expected me to answer good fortune or other things. I said that I thought it was laughter or humor.” The use of humor during the Holocaust in no way reduces the real horrors. Still, humor subjectively reduced them by acting as a coping mechanism. In a way, humor acts as a security blanket and a salve.

The brighter side of negative humor

Joking about taboo subjects or sensitive/macabre/painful events is called dark or gallows humor. And, it may have therapeutic value, especially for victims of trauma. Self-deprecating humor is quite common between potential mates, amongst friends and family members, and between established mates after tensions and arguments, especially during the peace-making process. Self-disparaging humor can be a mark of authority and good leadership qualities by effectively relieving tension and encouraging member participation. However, if the speaker’s jokes target others, it could create a negative impression in terms of helpfulness, communication, and social attractiveness. According to a study published in the Journal of Cognitive Processing, understanding and appreciating dark humor may indicate a higher level of intelligence. In their study, those who preferred dark humor had the highest verbal & nonverbal intelligence and high emotional stability. The highest form of intelligence – sarcasm – as Huang and his colleagues said – increases creativity, without creating conflict between the expresser and the receiver… but only when trust exists between them.

Humour has such profound benefits that Stanford offers a course called “Humor: Serious Business.” Humour and comedy are an innate part of us, and we are slowly uncovering the psychology of why something is funny. Laughter probably can’t cure your hangover, but hey, it’ll help you live longer (especially since COVID-19 took 1600 years of our lives). 

So finally, how can we learn to be more funny?


How to be funny 101

The process of creating a humorous statement according to cognitive psychologist Janet M. Gibson:

Step 1: Mentally construct the joke environment

Step 2: Detect or create incongruity in the scripts/elements of the joke or statement

Step 3: Resolve the incongruity by pulling attention away from the expected or non-funny interpretation of the elements

Professional tip: Next time you explain a joke and kill it, remember – this article had the last laugh.



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