The Science of Humor: Why We Laugh and What Makes Us Laugh

The Science of Humor: Why We Laugh and What Makes Us Laugh

The Science of Humor is a complex and elusive concept that has puzzled scientists and philosophers for centuries. Understanding why we laugh and what makes us laugh has been a subject of extensive research and debate. From theories of superiority and relief to incongruity and benign violation, psychologists have attempted to unravel the essence of humor. Despite the progress made, the complete theoretical framework for humor remains elusive. This blog post will delve into the fascinating world of humor, exploring the various theories and scientific insights behind the enigmatic phenomenon of laughter.

Understanding the Concept of Humor

Humor is a multifaceted concept that has been both revered and criticized throughout history. Despite its significance in people’s lives, philosophers have historically provided limited discourse about humor. Furthermore, the discussions that did take place were often disparaging. This lack of attention and prevalent negativity from prominent philosophical figures have contributed to the elusiveness of understanding humor.

The Elusiveness of Humor

Throughout history, humor has been a relatively disregarded topic within philosophical discourse. From ancient times to the 20th century, notable philosophers dedicated minimal attention to the subject. The term “humor” only gained its contemporary connotation of funniness in the 18th century, leading to traditional discussions focusing on laughter or comedy. This lack of extensive philosophical exploration of humor has contributed to its enigmatic nature, often leaving it overlooked in critical philosophical inquiries.

The Different Forms of Humor

Humor manifests itself in various forms, including laughter, comedy, wit, and joking. Despite the limited attention from philosophers, humor encompasses a broad spectrum of expressions and experiences. However, philosophical critiques have historically been centered around scornful or malicious laughter, overshadowing the positive and uplifting aspects of humor. This skewed focus has contributed to the pervasive negative perception of humor in philosophical discourse.

Cheerful young diverse friends laughing and clapping hands while young ethnic lady making wish and blowing out candle on cupcake during open air birthday party (Photo by Kampus Production)

The Evolution of Humor Theories

Humor, a complex and intriguing aspect of human behavior, has been a subject of interest and speculation throughout history. The Evolution of Humor Theories encompasses several significant perspectives that attempt to explain why certain things are funny and what triggers laughter. Let’s delve into the three prominent theories that have contributed to our understanding of humor.

The Superiority Theory of Humor

This theory posits that humor originates from the human tendency to feel a sense of superiority over others. The enjoyment of humor, according to this viewpoint, comes from the perception of being better off than someone else. By finding amusement in the misfortunes or follies of others, individuals experience a boost in their own self-worth.

The Relief Theory of Humor

The Relief Theory suggests that humor serves as a coping mechanism for dealing with psychological tensions and fears. It proposes that laughter is a release of nervous energy, providing a cathartic effect that helps individuals deal with stress and discomfort. According to this theory, humor acts as a form of relief from internal conflicts and anxieties.

The Theory of Incongruity

The Theory of Incongruity centers on the unexpected and the contradictory. It posits that humor arises from the perception of something that deviates from what is considered normal or anticipated. The element of surprise and the collision of contradictory ideas or situations create a cognitive dissonance that leads to amusement.

Cheerful multiracial female friends resting on sofa and floor while watching funny video on smartphone (Photo by Andrea Piacquadio)

These humor theories, although distinct in their assertions, collectively contribute to the comprehensive analysis of humor and its intricate nature. They provide a framework for understanding the psychological, emotional, and social aspects of what makes us laugh.

The Modern Approach to Understanding Humor

The Benign Violation Theory comprises a modern approach to understanding humor. According to this theory, humor arises from a combination of something seeming wrong or threatening, yet at the same time being safe or acceptable. For example, a pun or a harmless prank can create a benign violation, resulting in laughter. This theory suggests that the right balance between inappropriateness and harmlessness is crucial in humor.

The Benign Violation Theory

The Benign Violation Theory, developed by Peter McGraw and Caleb Warren, posits that humor occurs when a situation is both perceived as wrong or threatening and, simultaneously, as safe or acceptable. In other words, humor arises from violations of social norms or expectations that are perceived as harmless. This theory helps explain why certain jokes or comedic situations elicit laughter and others do not.

The Role of Surprise in Humor

Surprise is a fundamental element in humor. The element of unpredictability leads to a cognitive shift, creating a window of opportunity for humor to emerge. When something deviates from the expected pattern, it catches the audience off guard and generates a surprising twist. This element of surprise activates the pleasure centers in our brain, making us react with laughter. The unexpected outcome triggers the release of endorphins, leading to amusement and delight.

(Photo by Andy Fotheringham)

Musician in front of Audience (Photo by Furkan AYDİLEK)

The Role of Humor in Everyday Life

Humor plays a crucial role in our everyday lives, influencing various aspects of social interaction, emotional well-being, and physical health. Understanding the social functions and health benefits of humor can provide valuable insights into why we laugh and what makes us laugh.

Social Functions of Humor

Humor serves as a universal language that fosters social bonds and facilitates communication among individuals. It acts as a social lubricant, easing tensions, and breaking down barriers in interpersonal relationships. Through humor, people can express solidarity, convey shared experiences, and strengthen connections within social groups. Moreover, humor often serves as a coping mechanism, enabling individuals to navigate difficult situations and find common ground in the face of adversity.

The Health Benefits of Laughter

The act of laughter triggers a cascade of physiological and psychological responses that contribute to overall health and well-being. When we laugh, our bodies release endorphins, which are natural feel-good chemicals that promote relaxation and reduce stress. Additionally, laughter can enhance immune function, decrease pain perception, and improve cardiovascular health. Furthermore, the emotional release associated with laughter contributes to stress reduction and may alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression. In essence, the therapeutic effects of laughter underscore its significance as a powerful tool for promoting holistic wellness.

3 Men and 2 Women Sitting on White Bench (Photo by cottonbro studio)

The Science behind Laughter

Laughter is a complex human response that has both physiological and psychological elements. It involves intricate processes within the body and the mind, ultimately leading to the expression of amusement and joy. Understanding the science behind laughter entails delving into its physiology and psychology.

The Physiology of Laughter

The physiology of laughter involves a series of physical actions and reactions. When something is perceived as humorous, the brain sends signals to the body to prepare for laughter. This results in the contraction of various muscles, including the diaphragm and facial muscles. The act of laughing itself involves rhythmic, repetitive movements that engage the respiratory system, leading to increased oxygen intake and a sense of relaxation.

A Doctor Holding an MRI Result of the Brain (Photo by Anna Shvets)

The Psychology of Laughter

From a psychological perspective, laughter is a complex interplay of cognitive and emotional processes. The psychology of laughter encompasses various theories, including the superiority theory, relief theory, and incongruity theory. Each offers insight into the mechanisms behind why certain stimuli evoke laughter. For example, the superiority theory suggests that people find humor in feeling superior to others, while the relief theory posits that laughter serves as a release of pent-up emotions. The incongruity theory, on the other hand, highlights the role of unexpected or incongruous elements in generating laughter.

Brain Image on Digital Tablet (Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko)

By examining the physiology and psychology of laughter, we gain a deeper understanding of this universal human experience, shedding light on its profound effects on our well-being and social interactions.


In conclusion, the science of humor remains a complex and elusive subject, as psychologists continue to grapple with the inherent intricacies of what makes us laugh. The theories of superiority, relief, incongruity, and benign violation all offer valuable insights into the mechanisms behind humor, but none provide a comprehensive explanation. Nevertheless, ongoing research and the exploration of humor in everyday life contribute to our understanding of this universal human experience. As scientists delve deeper into the psychology of laughter, they work towards unraveling the enduring mystery of humor.

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