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The very serious science of humor

How studying what tickles our funny bone can help explain who we are.

Allie Volpe is a senior reporter at Vox covering mental health, relationships, wellness, money, home life, and work through the lens of meaningful self-improvement.

To find mirth in the world is to be human.

No culture is unfamiliar with humor, according to Joseph Polimeni, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Manitoba. For someone who analyzes humor, Polimeni tells me he’s still surprised by its complexity: How words and phrases and jokes have different meanings to everyone, but we all have the instinct to laugh. Just as humans have an innate ability to understand language, Polimeni says, so, too, do they have a reflex for comprehending everyday comedy. Sure, there are people who are better suited at making others laugh, but “almost everybody,” Polimeni tells me, can appreciate a quip.

As much as humor is universal, how it works is, to most people, a mystery. We seek out laughs in nearly every form of media, from film and TV to memes and TikToks. At the box office, popular comedies rake in big bucks. Funny people are idolized in pop culture.

A desire for hilarity influences who we choose to spend time with, too. Why else, when scrolling through profiles on dating apps, would so many say they hope to date someone who’s funny (or at least claim to be “fluent in sarcasm”)? According to the 2022 Singles in America survey from online dating service Match, 92 percent of singles seek a partner who can make them laugh. (Does this explain Pete Davidson’s appeal?)

The things that make us laugh today, from knock-knock jokes to satire, don’t quite resemble our ancestors’ version of humor. “Play is probably one of the original building blocks of humor,” Polimeni says. Many animals partake in it — dogs, otters, monkeys, rats, horses, fish, kangaroos — and humans’ early predecessors, similar to modern-day chimpanzees and primates, likely engaged in play, too, like mock fighting and tickling.

Over time, laughter-inducing play transformed into practical uses: Laughter and amusement signified a situation was safe, and positive emotions could be used to help cheer others up. Then, around 40,000 to 45,000 years ago, Polimeni says, humor evolved to serve more modern applications: to smooth over awkward social situations, to laugh at others’ mishaps. Humor would have aided early humans in having difficult or contentious conversations — topics like “Are you helping me enough?” “Do you like me?” “Why did you accidentally hit me? Or was it on purpose?” — without getting angry at one another, Polimeni says.

If softening the blow of a potentially sticky conversation with a chuckle and a smile could help people deal with conflict, then it makes sense that humor and laughter matured for the purposes of social cooperation, as Polimeni and others suggest. Having an audience appreciate your humor has profound social benefits. Successfully landing a joke raises a person’s status while also lowering the status of anyone who’s the butt of a joke. Those in on the joke feel a greater sense of camaraderie, too.

Still, few people would find data and the minute dissection of jokes amusing. Yet an entire field of research exists aiming to analyze and quantify humor and how we use it. Scholars are trying to demystify something intangible and crucial to relationships and well-being, even as what we find funny is always evolving and taking new forms. Humor is an omnipresent chameleon, a misunderstood shape-shifter, and to figure out how it works is to take the temperature of society, culture, and our psychology.

In the modern world, research strongly suggests that the social functions of humor are considerable. Laughter, itself more likely to occur when we’re around others, boosts cooperation and cohesiveness in groups. People who are funnier tend to have higher levels of both cognitive and emotional intelligence and creativity. Genuine laughter (not fake polite chuckles), known as Duchenne laughter, improves mood and tempers negative impacts of stress, and shared laughter promotes social bonding. French scientist Guillaume Duchenne coined his namesake expression in 1862 after performing a series of experiments in which he identified the facial muscles used in genuine smiles and laughter. A true grin or chuckle manifests in the eyes — the bit of squinting and wrinkles that form on our faces when something actually tickles us can’t be faked. It’s, as Tyra Banks would say, smizing. That’s Duchenne.

But how does humor actually work? What makes things funny? For centuries, scholars and great thinkers attempted to clarify the conundrum that is humor. Philosophers and humor academics largely subscribed to three schools of thought when explaining why we find amusement in life: the superiority theory, relief theory, and incongruity theory. The superiority theory, explained by the likes of Plato and Aristotle, is one of the oldest. It posits that things are funny when we feel superior to others or to prior, lowly versions of ourselves. Think: mocking humor or self-deprecating humor. Sigmund Freud’s interpretation, known as the relief theory, is that the act of laughter releases pent-up nervous energy or tension, such as when laughing at taboo or sexual topics. The third, and most widely accepted, explanation of humor is the incongruity theory. Philosophers James Beattie, Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, Søren Kierkegaard, and others postulated that we find amusement in things that are at odds with our expectations, a contradiction between the setup and the punchline. In contemporary humor, the joke teller sets the scene in the buildup; the part that makes us laugh is often a pivot away from the path we thought we were on.

These arguments don’t mean we’d find humor in “accidentally killing your mother-in-law,” Peter McGraw, a professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Colorado Boulder, and his coauthor Joel Warner wrote in their 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny. Unintended murder “would be incongruous, assert superiority, and release pent-up aggressive tensions, but it’s hardly a gut-buster.”

Gore, however, does garner a few laughs in the right context. I’m in the audience of a Denver theater watching improv comedians craft a layered and detailed narrative about vulnerability and love and gaping flesh wounds. Next to me, in the dark, mostly empty house of RISE Comedy, Caleb Warren is laughing. (As with some things that are funny, you really did have to be there.)

Warren, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Arizona, studies what makes us laugh for a living. He, along with his collaborator, Peter McGraw, convened this performance so I can see their work in action. The pair think they’ve got humor down to a science, and with volunteer improvisers as kind and willing test subjects, Warren and McGraw attempted to take the magic out of comedy: to describe to me, in painstaking detail, why the comedians’ jokes — why talk of flesh wounds — might make us laugh.

McGraw, who is trained in quantitative psychology, focusing on judgment and decision-making, teaches courses including undergraduate consumer behavior, MBA-level marketing management, and behavioral economics to PhD students. Warren was one of those PhD students during the latter part of the early aughts — one who struggled academically, but was one of the smartest in the room, McGraw says. Warren remembers McGraw teaching a lesson about moral violations: “victimless yet offensive actions (such as eating one’s dead pet dog),” as social psychologist Jonathan Haidt put it. While reading Haidt’s paper, Warren mostly thought the scenarios were funny. Around the same time, McGraw was giving a talk on moral violations and an audience member posed a question: If moral violations are supposed to elicit disgust, why are we laughing? McGraw didn’t really have an answer. He also couldn’t stop thinking about it. McGraw brought the puzzle to Warren and the pair quickly began exploring why we laugh at things that are morally wrong.

The theories of superiority, relief, and incongruity did an okay job at explaining humor, they thought. But it would make much more sense if there were one framework, one bow to neatly wrap around the humor experience. McGraw and Warren say they believed another theory, by linguist Thomas Veatch, got closer to solving the puzzle. Take the joke that inspired Veatch’s line of thinking as McGraw later recounted to me: Why did the monkey fall out of the tree? Because it was dead. Veatch claimed “that humor occurs when someone perceives a situation is a violation of a ‘subjective moral principle’ while simultaneously realizing that the situation is normal,” McGraw and Warner wrote. The violation? The dead monkey. The “normal” situation? Any dead creature would tumble from a tree, as gravity is wont to do. The major issue with Veatch’s proposition: The word “normal” hardly applies to some situations we find funny — absurd, surreal humor, for example. Tweaking Veatch’s theory, McGraw and Warren devised their own: They called it the Benign Violation Theory.

“We were looking to apply another theory at first,” Warren says. Reserved and cautious when choosing his words, Warren is not quite an unlikely candidate to be an expert on humor, but he toes the line. “We weren’t really looking to create our own.”

“Not at all,” McGraw says. McGraw is boisterous and chatty, a natural presenter with a boyish verve, fortunate qualities to have considering the sheer volume of interviews and talks he’s given on humor.

“There’s plenty of models out there to choose from,” he says. “We were struggling finding one that was good enough to answer the question [of what makes things funny], plus all these other questions that were popping into our head as we went.”

The pair co-authored a 2010 paper that explained their framework: For people to find things funny, three boxes must be checked: A situation (anything from someone falling down the stairs, a story, someone flubbing their words) is a violation of society’s mores, the situation is benign, and both happen simultaneously. One of the studies included in their paper asked participants — University of Colorado students — whether certain statements made them laugh. “Before he passed away, Keith’s father told his son to cremate his body. Then he told Keith to do whatever he wished with the remains. Keith decided to snort his dead father’s ashes,” was one passage respondents found both wrong and funny. The violation in this scenario is clearly the snorting of the ashes. The benign part is that the snorting was technically okay since Keith’s dad said he could do whatever he wanted with the ashes. Over the years of studying humor, Warren tells me, his sense of humor has progressively skewed darker and become borderline disturbing. In one study, for example, he asked participants to watch drug awareness PSAs because he got a kick out of them. The subjects did not agree.

McGraw launched the Humor Research Lab in 2009. The lab itself is hardly funny; it’s a bland office space in the University of Colorado Boulder’s business school, with fluorescent lights and a series of cubicles and Dell desktops, and no beakers full of red clown noses or whoopee cushions to speak of. On the day of my visit, the lab was empty, but during times of research and data collection, student volunteers were shepherded into the room to take surveys, watch videos, or observe other potentially humorous media on the screens.

Prior to the early 2010s, humor research was scattershot and largely based in philosophy or linguistics. Rod Martin, a now-retired professor of clinical psychology at the University of Western Ontario, stood alone in applying scientific rigor to the field. Martin, literally, wrote the book on the psychology of humor, appropriately titled The Psychology of Humor, a copy of which sits on the bookshelf in McGraw’s office. (Martin declined to be interviewed for this story.)

From the 1980s until he retired in 2016, Martin studied aspects of humor, like the effects of humor on physical health and stress (in short, humor is good for the mind and the body and helps us cope). In 2003, Martin and a graduate student developed the Humor Styles Questionnaire to account for individual differences in sense of humor. Just as some people use humor to tease or belittle, others may take amusement in the weirdness of the mundane and can often make themselves laugh.

To learn a bit more about how I approach humor in my life — how I use humor to amuse myself, relate to other people, tear myself down — I took the Humor Styles Questionnaire. The assessment asks participants to rank how much they agree with statements such as, “If I am feeling upset or unhappy I usually try to think of something funny about the situation to make myself feel better” and “I let people laugh at me or make fun at my expense more than I should.” The results are a series of scores in four different types of humor: affiliative humor, self-enhancing humor, aggressive humor, and self-defeating humor. Those with high levels of affiliative humor tell jokes to make others laugh. Self-enhancing humor is the skill of staying upbeat and humorous even when stressed. People with an aggressive humor style use comedy to tease and manipulate others. Finally, self-defeating humorists make themselves the butt of the joke.

I scored extremely high in self-defeating and affiliative humor, quite high in aggressive humor, and below average in self-enhancing humor. I shared my results with Gil Greengross, a lecturer in psychology at Prifysgol Aberystwyth University in Wales whose dissertation adviser was Martin, the guy who created the Humor Styles Questionnaire. Greengross became enthralled with humor as an academic subject matter when he realized how little is understood about what makes us laugh. If aliens were to touch down on Earth and examine how humans communicate, he tells me, “but then, every minute or two someone burst out laughing,” the aliens might wonder what that expression means and what it signals. So he decided to find out. Over Zoom, when Greengross hears how highly I score in self-defeating humor, a nervous smile creeps across his bespectacled face.

“Oh really? Self-defeating your highest?” he says. “That’s not very good for your mental health, to make fun of yourself. But again, it depends how you use it. Self-deprecating humor can be very useful for people if you use it in moderation. So it all depends on how often. Do you feel that you joke a lot about yourself?”

I tell him that I do. “Because I am often talking to people I don’t know for my job. So I find that it’s a way to ingratiate myself. And I often am talking to like, way smarter people, like you, and so I’m like, ‘Tell it to me like I’m a dumb person because I am dumb.’”

“I mean, you don’t have to demean yourself,” Greengross tells me, sounding a little like a disappointed father. “I don’t think that you’re less intelligent than me.”

The person I feel most qualified to joke about is myself. Perhaps incorrectly, I believe belittling myself may make people like me more, but that’s a conversation best reserved for my therapist, not Greengross. He tells me to use self-deprecating humor as a way to make me appear more romantically attractive to outsiders, which works, his studies have found.

Because everyone varies in their approaches to comedy — and some people seem preternaturally gifted in the laugh department — what accounts for such differences? What makes one person funnier than another?

It’s partly hereditary, says Greengross, who is currently studying humor in twins to see how genetics play a role. “Basically all psychological traits have some heritable component,” he says. But it’s also our environment: peers, friends, family. Humor is a thing that is subliminally studied simply by living and adapting to culture. We observe those around us and infer clues about what is appropriate based on what others laugh about, their reactions to jokes.

Take movies or comedy specials that haven’t aged particularly well. These media speak to a time and a culture that may have found the violations benign enough to laugh about. “We probably are learning what we find funny, but we’re learning about what is socially acceptable,” says Shelia Kennison, a professor of psychology at Oklahoma State University. “What are the funniest kinds of jokes? What should you laugh at? What should you not laugh at? And maybe you still find things funny that you shouldn’t laugh at. But you learn how to appear to be socially following the norms.”

When these broad social norms aren’t adhered to, that’s when jokes fall flat — or worse, offend. Think: racist, sexist, and ableist humor. However, the cultural perspectives and mores influencing joke appropriateness are never fixed. As time and tastes progress, so do audiences and what they consider acceptable to laugh at. Comedians like Dave Chappelle, who once had broad appeal, are maligned for their regressive material today. According to Kennison, audiences have moved beyond what Chappelle thinks is appropriate. “Dave Chappelle is a very cerebral comedian and I think he purposely wants people to think in ways they’re not comfortable thinking,” she says. “So I think he knew he probably was going to lose people.” But for the audience members who stay with him, they may feel more permission to parrot his ideologies. The more people hear racist or sexist jokes, the more comfortable they are with expressing these thoughts in other forums. Because the internet constantly exposes people to harmful humor — through memes, trolling, anonymous posting — bad actors only have more opportunities.

To strike the right balance of a benign enough violation without offending your audience requires some brains. Funny people are indeed smart, Greengross says. Because humorousness is associated with higher levels of emotional and cognitive intelligence, effective comedians understand the right context in which to tell jokes. “You wouldn’t go [to] a feminist conference and start telling sexist jokes, right?” Greengross says. “That would be poor emotional intelligence.” A funny person is also a bit of a risk taker, accepting that a quip might rub people the wrong way. Natural comedians tend to be more open to new experiences, too, Greengross says.

Some believe that standups are tortured souls who found an outlet for their dark thoughts in comedy, but Greengross and Martin found professional comics were more successful if they had higher levels of affiliative humor (the kind of humor people use to share with and to delight others).

There are plenty of comedic questions still left unanswered. One of the most puzzling mysteries, according to McGraw and Warren, is how to make people funnier. “That’s so difficult,” McGraw says, “I spent a year on [it] and then quit.” Teaching everyone to be more amusing would be great for the people who are already naturally comedic — they’d be hilarious — and increasingly awkward for everyone else since they’d just be offensive instead. The pair attempted to bring the conundrum of improving humor capabilities to Humor Research Lab but ended up with two papers on entirely different subjects and dropped the idea.

Warren is also interested in why some things that the Benign Violation Theory says should amuse people don’t, like riding a roller coaster, engaging in kinky sex, or eating spicy food — thrilling experiences that, for the most part, aren’t life-threatening, meaning they’re benign violations. Why, for some people, are these adventures titillating, or horrifying, but for others laughter-inducing? Currently, Warren is studying why people use jokes when they’re accused of wrongdoing and why people may find posts describing severe violations funny but won’t share that content with others.

Much of the research into humor attempts to dive into people’s minds, questioning participants about their perception of what is funny, or how they conjure witticisms. Neuroscientist Ori Amir took a different approach. Growing up in Israel, Amir’s father was a comedian and would critique his jokes, he tells me over Zoom, tufts of curly auburn hair poking out from underneath a flat-brimmed baseball hat. “Only one of my jokes ever got an A-plus,” says Amir, who, in addition to his scholarly career, is a standup comedian. “Unfortunately, that joke is very heavily reliant on understanding of Hebrew expressions.”

When Amir was a doctoral student at the University of Southern California he successfully took a peek under comedy’s hood, examining the brains of professional and amateur comedians using fMRI scans. The goal: Figure out what parts of the brain are used when coming up with and appreciating humor. What he found, published in a 2016 study, was that two areas of the brain, the prefrontal cortex and temporal lobe, are active while making a joke. The temporal lobe plays double duty; it lights up both when a person hears and processes a joke and when they make a joke. Understanding a joke is a quicker process in the brain — illustrated by a quick spike of brain activation — than the process of conceiving one, which appears as a gradual increase of activity. (It’s important to note that while fMRI scans can easily determine parts of the brain where activity occurs, interpreting the function of said areas is decidedly less clear.)

What was surprising to Amir was the funnier the joke (as rated by independent graders), the less activity there was in the prefrontal cortex of the person who created it. What Amir determined was the neuroscience equivalent to “get out of your head” — that we’re funniest when we’re not trying so hard to be funny. Amir suspects some people might be predisposed to have less activity in this area, but practice in the art of comedy can help further quiet the noise in the prefrontal cortex. In Amir’s study, the professional comedian participants had less going on in the prefrontal cortex than non-comics.

The magical thing about humor in everyday life is its ease, its ubiquitousness. The more you think about being the funniest person in the room, the more likely you’ll fail. It’s the effortlessness at which the funniest of us can fire off witticisms, the ways in which we intuit how to amuse those we know best.

Pages and pages of scientific literature are dedicated to uncomfortable experiences, such as regret, McGraw tells me, and not something uplifting, like humor. For McGraw, dedicating a decade of his career to a phenomenon that is all at once joyful, entertaining, status-enhancing, artistic, bond-building, and communicative is to shed light on an essential part of human existence we all know is there. From Warren’s perspective, humor is the guiding hand teaching us what’s right, what’s wrong, how to navigate the world. “Someone who jokes a lot as a child, or even as an adult,” Warren says, “they tend to have a better sense of the culture, a better sense of social norms, a better sense of how to understand people.”

I tell Warren this is my exact experience with humor. As an awkward and shy kid, I began to test the boundaries of friendship, of social appropriateness, through silly jokes. Every laugh was permission to proceed. Illogical or hurtful quips were learning moments. The symbiotic relationship between humor and ourselves is endlessly fascinating; as individuals grow, culture shifts, and so does the way we talk and joke about the world around us.

At the risk of turning something sexy into a chapter in a science book, humor research helps explain who we are, the forces that shape us, and the ways we move culture. It’s the reason why McGraw and Warren included a section in many of their papers titled “Humor Is Important.” McGraw lists some of the reasons why: Humor is a huge facet of the entertainment industry, an important coping mechanism, a driver of who our friends and romantic partners are, a weapon to bully and belittle, a vehicle to promote and destroy ideas.

“So, like, yeah, this is incredibly important,” he says wryly. “It’s a fascinating puzzle.”

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