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We know what humor is, we know what laughter is, and we all have experienced both. The million dollar question now is, what causes humor triggering laughter? What is it about a joke or an amusing situation that we find funny? Put your smiley faces on, we're in for a bumpy ride!
The Incongruity Theory Revisited
One of the theories about the causes of laughter we discussed earlier was the incongruity theory. Let's now look at how this might be applied to a joke.
Let's take a close look at the structure of a joke: it starts off in one direction, and then abruptly changes lanes and takes the nearest off-ramp. What's with that?! Just as our brain gets into a story, formulating possible ways that the joke is going to end BAM! the punchline appears, "cutting across the logical development of the story" [Britannica 99].
Our thought-pattern and emotions are disrupted. The story starts and our mind and body are already anticipating what's going to happen, and how it's going to end. The anticipation takes the form of logical thought entwined with emotion, and is guided by our past experiences and thought processes.
joke/humorous situation becomes funny when we expect one outcome,
but another one happens. Our thoughts and emotions suddenly have to
"change lanes." We now have new emotions, backing up a different
line of thought. In other words, we experience two sets of
incompatible thoughts and emotions simultaneously: one set
follows one line of thought, the second set, the other line. This
incongruity between the different parts of the joke/situation is
experienced as humorous. It occurs when things that do not normally
go together are put together. For a more scientific explanation of
this, see Veatch's Theory of
To be able to appreciate a situation/joke as funny, we also need to feel some detachment. If the joke/situation is too close to home, or too realistic, feelings of sadness, concern and pity may be evoked, instead of ones of mirth (i.e. merriment, cheerfulness and joy).
To produce this detachment, the joke can include elements such as:
According to Lisa Rosenberg, PhD., R.N., humor, especially black humor, can help workers cope with stressful situations. "The act of producing humor, of making a joke, gives us a mental break and increases our objectivity in the face of overwhelming stress". The distancing effect created by hunor makes it easier to maintain focus and competency. It enables them to conquer their fears and maintain control of their environment. [quote from "Sick Jokes, Healthy Workers." Psychology Today. 1993, Vol 26 No.4., p.18]