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How Humor Works

 

Techniques Using humor > How Humor Works

Principle | Sense-making | The humor point | Good and bad jokes | See also

 

Humor can be understood from both logical and psychological viewpoints.

Principle

The basic principle of humor is that it is unexpected in some way.

In jokes, for example, a situation is painted, expectation of a result is set up, and then a different result produced from from that which is expected.

Did you hear about the radio that got run over by a road-roller? The batteries went flat.

Sense-making

We live in real-time and have to make sense of everything as it happens.

When we understand, we can predict, and when we predict, we can decide on the appropriate actions by which we can avoid harm and achieve our needs and goals.

Surprise and confusion

As a part of this internal system of inference, the predictions create expectation, and when these are not met, as happens in humor, the result is surprise and a temporary confusion while we desperately try to make sense of this unexpected situation.

We predict using models, values and other rules. Humor may hence work by breaking such expectation-inducing patterns.

Delayed understanding

There is hence a delayed understanding as we internally search for meaning. This includes reviewing different interpretations of what has just happened and selecting the option which seems to fit best.

The delay can be very short as we quickly make sense of what is said. It can also take several seconds or even need some verbal explanation. The best jokes often have a delay of around a second before realization kicks in.

The humor point

When things make sense after the confusion and delay, then we find things funny.

Relief

When people have been in danger or are threatened by some risk, it is common for them to laugh when the threat has passed. This is a form of closure, where the tension of the perceived risk is released.

The same principle happens with humor, where the confusion, which raises the possibility of threat, is resolved. This is a kind of relief, where we can relax and smile.

Safe danger

One of the things we enjoy is 'safe danger', where we can experience threats that are not really threats, for example in the vicarious experience of watching contact sports or horror movies. Jokes and funny situations act in a similar way as the uncertainty creates a sense of danger, yet we know we will not be harmed.

One view of the origin of laughter is where a parent whizzes a child up and down and the child makes smiling breathless 'huh, huh' noises as they enjoy the thrill of the 'danger' in the movement.

Learning

Jokes are not so funny when told again, as there is no surprise or confusion the second time around.

When we make sense of something that formerly did not make sense, we are learning. Young children learn through play.  Humor can be deliberately used as an integral part of education, making learning fun again.

Creative aha

In another way, this is like creativity, where there is a delay between looking for an idea and the aha of discovery. The tension of seeking a solution prompts the brain to come up with a new idea. The closure of the 'aha' moment can feel a lot like humor and the person may well laugh.

Pain and pleasure

Humor also leans on the fundamental principle of pain and pleasure. The discomfort of not understanding is a form of pain, while the sudden realization is a form of pleasure. As these rapidly sequence together, the resultant feeling can be a strange mingling of both pain and pleasure at the same time.

Good and bad jokes

Good jokes make use of timing, aligning description by the teller with the thinking and understanding process of the listener. In this way, the person is already trying to make sense of what is said before the end of the joke/ The punchline acts as a control element when it is necessary and sufficient to trigger final understanding.

A bad joke either does not lead to confusion as the audience understands it easily, or else it just leaves them confused. Bad jokes make people irritatedly think 'hah' rather than the funny 'aha' (or perhaps 'haha') of understanding.

See also

Tension principle, Closure principle, Pleasure-Pain Principle

 

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