Humor and Psychology
by Don L. F. Nilsen
and Alleen Pace Nilsen
• Modern man in contrast to primitive
man has been called:
• Homo Erectus (upright man)
• Homo Sapiens (thinking man)
• Homo Ridens (laughing man)
The Id, the Super Ego, and
• “The Id is a pool for desires and drives.
• As society and parental influence
(represented in the super ego) do not allow
the direct expression of sexual and hostile
impulses, gratification can only be achieved
in an indirect way.
• There, individuals repressing their sexuality
or aggression should show a preference for
sexual and aggressive jokes.” (Ruch 
Traits, States, and Behaviors
Seriousness vs. Playfulness
• TRAITS: A “serious person” wants to
function exclusively in the bona fide mode of
communication. This is not true for a
• STATES: We can be in a serious or pensive
mood, or a silly mood.
• BEHAVIORS: We can tell a joke or clown
around. (Ruch  32)
• Playful Mood
– Cheerful mood
– Hilarious mood
• Serious Mood
• Bad Mood
– Ill-Humor (Adapted from Ruch  34)
• “While an ill-humored person, like the serious one, may not
want to be involved in humor, the person in a sad mood may
not be able to do so even if he or she would like to.”
• “Also, while the sad person is not antagonistic to a cheerful
group, the ill-humored one may be.”
• “Bad mood might also be a disposition facilitating certain
forms of humor, such as mockery, irony, cynicism, and
sarcasm.” (Ruch  34)
Types of Humor
• “Affiliative Humor” involves the tendency to say funny things,
to tell jokes, and to engage in spontaneous witty banter.
• “Self-Enhancing Humor” is a coping mechanism.
• “Aggressive Humor” involves sarcasm, teasing, ridicule,
derision, put downs or disparagement.
• “Self-Defeating Humor” is when a person allows himself to be
the butt of other people’s jokes.
• (Ruch  38-39)
• Willibald Ruch indicates that anatomically there are
about 20 types of smiles, controlled by five facial
– Zygomatic Major
– Zygomatic Minor
– Levator Anguli Oris
– Risorius (Ruch  21)
• “When individuals genuinely enjoy humor
they show the facial configuration named
the Duchenne display, which refers to the
joint contraction of the zygomatic major and
the orbicularis oculi muscles (pulling the lip
corners backwards and upwards and raising
the cheeks) causing eye wrinkles,
• (Ruch  21)
• “Smiles not following these definitions are unlikely
to reflect genuine enjoyment of humor.”
• “There may be smiling involved in blends of
emotions (e.g., when enjoying a disgusting or
frightening film), smiles masking negative emotions
(e.g., pretending enjoyment when actually sadness
or anger is felt), miserable, flirting, sadistic,
embarrassment, compliance, coordination,
contempt, and phony etc. smiles.”
• (Ruch  22)
Craik, Lampert, Nelson, & Ware
Socially Warm Vs. Socially Cold
Reflective Vs. Boorish
Competent Vs. Inept
Earthy Vs. Repressed
Benign Vs. Mean-Spirited
(Ruch  41-42)
• “Most laughter is not a response to
jokes or other formal attempts at
humor” (Provine  42).
• Laughter may be caused by all sorts of
non-humorous stimuli (tickling,
laughing gas, embarrassment) and can
be triggered by imitation (watching
other people laugh) (Attardo  117)
• Giles and Oxford (1970) list seven causes of
laughter: humorous, social, ignorance,
anxiety, derision, apologetic, and tickling.
• Olbrechts-Tyteca (1974) point out that
“laughter largely exceeds humor.”
• Jodi Eisterhold (2006) discussed the
“principle of least disruption,” which
“enjoins speakers to return to a serious
mode as soon as possible.”
LAUGHTER VS. SMILING
• Because smiles can sometimes evolve into laughs
and laughs can taper off into smiles, some people
think that laughter is merely a form of exaggerated
• However, smiles are more likely to express feelings
of satisfaction or good will, while laughter comes
from surprise or a recognition of an incongruity.
• Furthermore, laughter is basically a public event
while smiling is basically a private event.
Laughter is an Invitation
• “To laugh, or to occasion laughter through
humor and wit, is to invite those present to
• “Laughter and humor are indeed like an
invitation, be it an invitation for dinner, or an
invitation to start a conversation: it aims at
decreasing social distance.”
• (Coser 172)
• (Kuipers (2008): 366)
• Laughter is a social
phenomenon. That’s why
“getting the giggles” never
happens when we are alone.
• In contrast, people often smile
when they are reading or even
when they are having private
• Smiling is not contagious, but
laughter is contagious.
• That’s why radio and television
comedy performances often have
a laugh track.
• Throughout time, philosophers have made
many statements about laughter that are not
true of smiling.
• These philosophers include Thomas Hobbes,
Immanuel Kant, William Hazlitt, Arthur
Schopenhauer, Henri Bergson and Sigmund
• Each of these philosophers defined laughter
in a different way:
• Laughter is “the sudden glory
arising from the sudden
conception of some eminency
in ourselves, by comparison
with the infirmity of others.”
• (Leviathan, 1651)
• “Laughter is an affection arising from a
strained expectation being suddenly
reduced to nothing.”
• (The Critique of Judgment, 1790)
• “The essence of the laughable is the
incongruous, the disconnecting one
idea from another, or the jostling of one
feeling against another.”
• (Lecturers on the Comic Writers, Etc. of
Great Britain, 1819)
• “The phenomenon of laughter
always signifies the sudden
apprehension of an incongruity
between a conception and the real
• (The World as Will and Idea 1844)
• “Something mechanical
encrusted on the living
• (Laughter 1900)
• Laughter arises from “the release of
previously existing static energy.”
• (Jokes and Their Relation to the
THE PARADOXES OF LAUGHTER
• Although laughter is usually associated
with mirth and joy, perpetrators of
violent acts have also been known to
exhibit menacing smiles, or to laugh
• The paradoxes of laughter have been
addressed by many laughter scholars:
• James Agee classified the laughter of screen
comedians into four categories: the titter, the
yowl, the belly laugh, and the buffo.
• which he organized into six categories
ranging from the incipient or ‘inner and
inaudible’ laugh (the simper and smirk) to the
loud and unrestrained howl, yowl, shriek, and
GARY ALAN FINE
• Gary Alan Fine has explained that a
smile in one society may portray
friendliness, in another
embarrassment, while in still another it
may be a warning of hostilities and
attack if tension is not reduced.
• “No pattern of human behavior is so full of paradoxes.”
• “We may laugh in sympathy, from anxiety or relief, from anger
or affection, and from joy or frustration.”
• “Conditions that can evoke laughter include shyness, triumph,
surprise, tickling, a funny story, an incongruous situation, a
sense of well-being associated with good health, and a desire
to conceal one’s inner thoughts.”
D. G. KEHL CITING JAMES THURBER
• There are a dozen different kinds of
laughter, from the inner and inaudible
to the guffaw, taking in such variants
as the laughter of shock,
embarrassment, the “she-laughed-so-I-
Iaughed-too,” and even the “he-
Del Kehl went on to divide laughter
into ascending degrees of intensity:
• There is the simper or smirk, the
snicker or snigger, the titter, the giggle,
the chuckle, the simple laugh, the
cackle, the cachinnation, the chortle,
the belly laugh, the horse laugh, the
Olympian or Homeric laugh, the
guffaw, the boff or boffo, the crack up,
the roar, the yowl or howl, the bellow,
the hoot, and the shriek.
• People who laugh from being tickled are
not necessarily put in a more receptive
mood for enjoying the humor in jokes.
• This is because laughing from being
tickled occurs in a part of the brain
different from where laughter that is
intellectually stimulated occurs.
• Furthermore, people
cannot tickle themselves
because the cerebelum in
the lower back of the
brain somehow sends an
interfering message to the
part of the brain that
FINAL CONTRAST OF
HUMOR AND SMILING
– Anthony Chapman did a study in which he
compared the actions of a group of children who
knew they were being observed with a group who
did not know they were being observed.
– The children who knew they were being watched
laughed four times as often as did those in the other
– However, they smiled only half as much.
• Anthony Chapman concluded not only that
laughter can be good or bad, depending on
• But he also concluded that humor is both the
cause for laughter, and the result of laughter.
• That’s why humor and laughter are so closely
LAUGHTER WEB SITES
COLOR-CHANGING CARD TRICK:
The Happiness Machine:
Laughaway (Arya Pathria):
Laughter Remedy (Paul McGhee):
Laughter Works (Kay Caskey & Laurie Young)
Lie to Me:
Selective Attention Test:
World Laughter Tour (Steve Wilson):
• The Brain
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