Published on October 25th, 20125
Why we Laugh at things that are not Funny
By Joachim Vogt Isaksen
The positive effects of humor and laughter on physical health is well established and well documented. But what is humor and what makes us laugh? Every day you laugh at things that are not funny at all. The reason for this is that humor serves several social functions that do not have anything to do with what is really funny.
There are different explanations and theories on why we laugh. First of all we have the relief theory that postulates that laughter serves a homeostatic mechanism by which psychological tension is reduced. According to this theory humor relieves tension caused by fears. You have probably observed how you tend to become more creative and make funny remarks when confronted with situations that are packed with tension and discomfort, such as right before you are about to give a public presentation, or right before an exam. We also use dark humor to distance ourselves from horrifying images and stories of war and human atrocities.
So one of the reasons why we laugh is that humor relieves tension, thereby releasing hormones that are good for our general well-being. But this does not account for all kinds of humor. The Superiority Theory of humor states that humor derives from feelings of superiority. The general idea is that a person laughs about misfortunes of others because these misfortunes assert the person’s superiority on the background of shortcomings of others. An individual will use humor when the objects of the humor are different from us, especially when the humor targets people or groups that we do not empathize with. We may for example use sarcastic remarks toward people that have a lifestyle that differs from us, or other political views than ours.
The evolution of humor
Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller contends that humor would have had no survival value to early humans living in the savannas of Africa. He contends that humor has evolved as a means of facilitating sexual selection. Further, he argues that humor emerged as an indicator of other traits that were of survival value, such as human intelligence.
According to Robert Provine there is a relation between laughter and social status. Women´s desire for men that make them laugh may be a veiled request for dominant males. This indicates that it may not be dominant males potential to exhibit great humorous qualities, but instead it may be easier for males with higher social status to make women laugh. This means that social status and humor must be seen in relation to each other in that people in general laugh more of people with high social status. Imagine this situation; you are in a meeting at your work and your dominant boss makes an average remark that everyone in the room laughs at, even if the remark in itself is not funny at all. If a person lower in the hierarchy makes the same remark it may not elicit nearly the same response.
The main point in this article is that whether something is funny or not, is in itself not so important to social relationships. The importance is that laughter seems to structure hierarchies. Laughter may also be used to display hostility and as a means to distance ourselves to other people or groups we do not like. On the other hand it could also signal mutual liking and well-being.
As an exercise you could try to count how many times each day you laugh of things that are not funny at all, and probably find that most of the time laughter only serves a social function.
La Fave, Lawrence 1972. “Humor judgments as a function of reference groups and identification classes 195-210 in the Psychology of Humor: Theoretical Perspectives and Empirical Issues. Academic Press.
Miller, Geoffrey 2001. The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature. Anchor.
Provine, Robert. R 2001. Laughter: A Scientific Investigation. Penguin books.