Why do we laugh?(Humor)
From: Communication World | Date: 10/1/1998 | Author: Fatt, James P.T.
Humor is multidimensional and exists for different reasons. There are three main categories of humor, namely, verbal, visual and physical. Verbal humor involves the use of words, as in jokes and puns. Visual humor relies on images, as exemplified by cartoons and personal appearance. Finally, physical humor uses actions, such as in slapstick comedy. Explanations for humor include allowing a person to feel superior by degrading another. Another sort of humor occurs when incongruous things which do not usually come together are juxtaposed. A third explanation points out that humor provides release of tension. However, these explanations are not in themselves enough to make something funny. Aside from superiority, incongruity or tension release, humor requires a particular atmosphere provided by verbal, visual or physical elements.
It's healthy to laugh. By laughing we discharge built-up energy that can't be used because of socially imposed inhibitions. But why do we laugh at times and at other times remain sombre?
Types of Humour
Humour can be categorised into three basic types: verbal, visual and physical. Verbal humour uses words such as puns and jokes. Visual humour uses images as in cartoons and in the physical appearance of some comedians. Physical humour uses actions, as in "slapstick" comedy that includes pie fights or chase scenes. In humour, verbal, visual or physical things alone are not funny. Other conditions contribute to the verbal, visual or physical stimuli that make humour possible. To understand what is involved in humour and why some things are funny and others are not, we will to turn to how some psychologists and sociologists explain humour.
Humour can be explained in three ways:
1. Things are humorous when they make a person feel superior.
2. Things become humorous when there is incongruity, or the juxtaposition of things not normally associated with one another.
3. Humour occurs when tension is released.
For humour to be effective, it must also stimulate laughter.
The first explanation that humour relates to feelings of superiority has existed since ancient times. Plato, for example, believed that all humour could be explained in this way. People laugh whenever something or someone is degraded, thus making them superior. Most often, the feelings of superiority and degradation work hand-in-hand. Thus, this type of humour consists of giving "yourself a sense of superiority by deriding lesser mortals," according to Peter Marsh in "Raising a Smile" from The Marshall Cavendish Encyclopedia of Personal Relationships: Human Behaviour.
Examples of verbal humour involve derision and include ethnic jokes and "put-downs". These give people the opportunity to assert their superiority over others. A derisive form of visual humour can be found in caricatures that emphasise the unusual features of people. Sometimes, even when the visual image is of someone we respect, we laugh because the caricature makes him or her look comical or ugly.
A derisive form of physical humour can be found, for example, in the antics of the Three Stooges, an early U.S. comedy team. In this type of humour, people laugh when they see the misfortunes of three men who are obviously inferior to them. When a person in a slapstick comedy slips on a banana peel, or is otherwise hurt, people laugh because they identify with their superiority over the situation.
However, despite these various examples of derisive humour, the explanation that humour relates to feelings of superiority is not always enough to explain why people laugh.
For example, sometimes we do not laugh, but rather feel pity for someone's inferiority and suffering. The second explanation of humour is that people laugh when they see incongruity, that is, two things side-by-side that normally do not belong together. Incongruity also can relate to humour that sets up a person to expect one type of outcome, and is surprised by a completely different outcome.
Many humour experts believe that incongruity is the key to explaining humour. For example, Marsh claims that for humour to exist, there must be an essential incongruity such as an unexpected conflict or inconsistency between two ideas that is resolved as a joke. Nico Frijda, author of "The Emotions: Studies in Emotion and Social Interaction," also sees the main element of humour to be the presentation of some opposition, contradiction, or difficulty that is subsequently resolved.
An example of verbal incongruity can be a joke where the person is expecting to hear one outcome, but is surprised by a different one, thus, verbal incongruity occurs when the punch line bears an unexpected relationship to the opening part of the story. Incongruity can be found in visual humour as well. For example, Laurel and Hardy made people laugh simply because one of them was very fat and the other was very thin. Similarly, in Singapore, comedians Wang Sa and Yeh Fong are well-received by the audience partly because one is short and fat and the other is tall and thin. It is funny for people to think that two people who are so completely different from one another would ever become friends. Marsh believes that visual forms of incongruity are among the most humorous. Thus, cartoons without any captions are often the most humorous of all, because they rely on visual puns or unusual juxtapositions.
An example of incongruity in physical humour can be seen in the famous play and television series known as "The Odd Couple." People automatically laugh at this situation that shows two men forced to live as roommates with one another - one of them being obsessively neat and the other being a total slob. In addition, people laugh at the physical actions and reactions that come from these two characters with opposing personalities. As with Laurel and Hardy, one of the keys to incongruous humour in "The Odd Couple" is the fact that the two characters are completely opposite from one another. It seems that the more extreme the incongruity is, the funnier it is. As with Marsh and Frijda, A. J. Chapman, who wrote in Humour., The Encyclopedia Dictionary of Psychology, agrees that incongruity is important in explaining why some things are funny and others are not, but stresses that incongruity alone is not enough to explain humour in all cases. The perception of something unexpected might lead to laughter but, if there is no playful mood, it may lead instead to fear, curiosity, problem-solving or concept learning. Thus, funny things are sometimes incongruous; however, incongruous things are not necessarily funny.
The third explanation of humour is that humour helps to release pent-up tensions. People laugh when something is so unexpected or taboo that it shocks their senses. The experience of being shocked in this way can cause tension to be released in the form of laughter. Sigmund Freud was a great proponent of this explanation. According to Freud's view, laughter is "an outlet for discharging psychic energy," says Chapman. Freud considered laughter as a way of releasing nervous energy because it provides relief and self-gratification, and renders potentially damaging conflicts harmless.
Verbal humour involving tension release can be seen when a comedian tells a joke to an audience by making fun of stereotypes. By this, the comedian helps relieve the feelings of tension that people normally have regarding the topic. An example of visual humour that relieves tension can be seen in a cartoon image that's so strange in appearance that it shocks the senses. An example of tension release in physical humour can be found in slapstick comedies that show people performing violent or impossible acts. The violence or absurdity of the actions creates a shock for the viewing audience, and thereby provides a release of pent-up tensions.
Studies show that the link between laughter and the release of tension can be traced to infancy. For example, actions that normally would be terrifying to a young child, such as a sudden appearance, poking, bouncing and tickling, can cause laughter, according to Frijda. Specifically, laughter will occur when these actions are in the context of play with a parent or other caring adult. An infant certainly does not laugh because of a perception of superiority or incongruity. However, it is also apparent that release of tension is not enough to explain humour in all cases. In the case of tickling, for example, children laugh when tickled by their parents. However, they will not laugh, and may even cry, when this is done by strangers, according to Ziv Avner, author of "Expressing Your Personality" in The Cavendish Encyclopedia of Personal Relationships: Human Behaviour. Thus, as in the case of the superiority and the incongruity explanations, the release of tension alone is not enough to explain why some things are funny.
In addition to superiority, incongruity or tension release, a mysterious mood is also necessary to create humour. In this regard, humour requires a particular context to be funny. The verbal, visual or physical elements that make up the humour provide this essential context. In addition, humour requires a playful mood to cause people to laugh. This playfulness occurs when people feel that they are able to detach themselves from their problems. Thus, "laughter involves an annulment of seriousness," writes Frijda. To create something humorous, one needs to use derision, incongruity and tension release - or a combination of these components - within a specific verbal, visual or physical context. Furthermore, that context must be provided within an atmosphere of humour. When these elements are combined in the right way, the sum is bigger than its parts, and the result is laughter.
Humour is a complex and ambiguous thing that cannot be easily defined by any single theory. Degradation, incongruity and tension release all help to partially explain humour. However, none of these explanations alone can explain it completely. Humour is multi-dimensional and, depending on content and social context, may cause multiple and diverse effects amongst the initiators and recipients.
James P.T. Fatt is a lecturer at the school of accountancy and business, Nanyang Technology University, Singapore.
COPYRIGHT 1998 International Association of Business Communicators
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