Humor As Norm Evasion

As a young engineering and physics student, I was suspicious of the “subtext” and hidden meanings humanities types went on about. Yeah sure some writers might use hidden meanings, but why analyze most texts this way?  And analyzing ordinary human conversation in such terms seemed over the top. I thought, “How convenient for English teachers that only they can explain a novel’s hidden meanings to us?”

But, I was wrong, wrong, wrong. Hidden meanings are everywhere. Maybe you can’t see them much when young, but if you keep at it eventually you will. The Homo Hypocritus (i.e., man the sly rule bender) hypothesis I’ve been exploring lately is that humans evolved to appear to follow norms, while covertly coordinating to violate norms when mutually advantageous. A dramatic example of this seems to be the sheer joy and release we feel when we together accept particular norm violations.  Apparently much “humor” is exactly this sort of joy:

The benign-violation [= humor] hypothesis suggests that three conditions are jointly necessary and sufficient for eliciting humor: A situation must be appraised as a [norm] violation, a situation must be appraised as benign, and these two appraisals must occur simultaneously. … People who see the behavior as both a violation and benign will be amused. Those who do not simultaneously see both interpretations will not be amused. …

In five experimental studies, … we found that benign moral violations tend to elicit laughter (Study 1), behavioral displays of amusement (Study 2), and mixed emotions of amusement and disgust (Studies 3–5). Moral violations are amusing when another norm suggests that the behavior is acceptable (Studies 2 and 3), when one is weakly committed to the violated norm (Study 4), or when one feels psychologically distant from the violation (Study 5). …

We investigated the benign-violation hypothesis in the domain of moral violations. The hypothesis, however, appears to explain humor across a range of domains, including tickling, teasing, slapstick, and puns. (more; HT)

Laughing at the same humor helps us coordinate with close associates on what norms we expect to violate together (and when and how). This may be why it is more important to us that close associates share our sense of humor, than our food or clothing tastes, and why humor tastes vary so much from group to group.

Added 14Aug: I don’t mean to claim that all humor is benign norm violations, nor that all such violations are humorous.  Rather, I’d say the pattern fits much better than chance, and seems insightful.  I suggested humor functions in part to help us coordinate with close associates on what norm violations to excuse. This suggests that humorous norm violations could be pretty harmful, but just not to those doing the coordinating. This seems to apply to Vlad’s example; I expect wives to laugh at his joke more than husbands.  This also suggests, as per Evan and Katja, that covertly lowering the status of outsiders, by indirectly “making fun of them” against egalitarian norms, should also be funny.  Perhaps the more general pattern is that covertly conspiring against others tends to be funny.

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  • Jess Riedel

    But do you really think English teachers are revealing to their students the same hidden messages (or even the same *genre* of hidden messages) which you now think are really there?

  • Larry D’Anna

    I think this is the first explanation of humor I’ve read that wasn’t obviously wrong.

  • Robert Koslover

    I think you may be right, but I am not sure. To prove your case, and since this is a theory of humor at its most basic level, I challenge you (humorously, but still sincerely, not rhetorically) to do the following: Using your theory, derive (and present to us) an entirely new, never-before-heard, joke (and not merely a variation on an existing joke) created entirely based on first principles. Note also that joke generation has monetary value; people are paid for comedy writing. So a workable theory may be valuable too. And frankly, if basic humor is amenable to rigorpus theory, it is way past time that it be done by properly-trained and licensed professionals (ok, sok, so now I’m getting a bit snarky). Anyway, here is (I think) a semi-relevant reference:

  • “A situation must be appraised as a [norm] violation, a situation must be appraised as benign, and these two appraisals must occur simultaneously”

    That’s exactly how Candid Camera worked. I helped produce the UK version of the show fifty years ago and always felt that harmless threat, or danger averted, accounted for much of its appeal.

  • Metacognition

    This is very possibly a brilliant insight.

  • Vozworth

    As the failboat is docking at the Federal Reserve.

    Captain Obvious says “Didja see the size of that iceburg?”
    First RSS feader replies, “Icebergs like that happen all the time, no big deal.”
    Iceburg laments, “I dont care for the free lemonade and the free trip to heaven stand out front.”

    -an unquenched tin ear stole my summer of recovery guy

  • Jake

    Robert: most (or perhaps all–I’m not sure) of the jokes from the original paper Robin linked to were new jokes, “derived from first principles.” Participants rated them as much funner than matched jokes that did not feature benign violations.

  • Do

    A very good post.

  • Don the libertarian Democrat

    I thought it was a very good post.

  • John Maxwell IV

    OK, but clearly this doesn’t explain all of humor. The world’s funniest joke:

    Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy takes out his phone and calls the emergency services.

    He gasps: “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator says: “Calm down, I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a gunshot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says: “OK, now what?”

    Social norm violation yes, benign no. And the second-place joke is hardly social-norm-violating at all. I tend to think that people laugh at incongruities, and benign social norm violations are a subclass of incongruities. Of course, we might have evolved to laugh at incongruities because benign social norm violations are a subclass of them.

  • John Maxwell IV

    BTW, you guys suck at rationality because you failed to sample from the pool of jokes as a whole to see if there were counterexamples to your hypothesis. See this:

    • The existence of counterexamples doesn’t disprove the claim that “Apparently much ‘humor’ is exactly this sort of joy”

  • Marcus

    @John Maxwell IV why do you presume farcical violence is not benign? Do you know someone who did that? Could you imagine someone doing that? Is it a present danger to you. Or only in edge cases? There are always edge cases, that’s why only politicians and liars worry about the edge cases.

    Do you similarly say that playing violent video games is similarly not benign as enjoyment as you imply the the joke is? That is, rather than as dangerous but abstract influence?

    • John Maxwell IV

      Implausible norm violations aren’t quite the same as benign norm violations. Benign norm violations imply the discovery that maybe the norm doesn’t make that much sense after all, which suggests that you and I who are laughing at the joke start violating it. Regardless, there’s still the problem of the second-funniest joke. I think you’ll have to rewrite that second paragraph if you want me to respond to it.

  • Laughing at the same humor helps us coordinate with close associates on what norms we expect to violate together


    I’ve spent a fair amount of time recently thinking about humor, and I found the above sentence very insightful.

  • John, the two jokes you point us to both seem like benign norm violations to me. Since the friend was very likely dead, shooting him very likely didn’t hurt him, making it benign. In the usual Holmes-Watson dialogues, Holmes is very respectful of and polite toward Watson, and uses his line of questioning to point out a subtle conclusion. Holmes directly insulting Watson violates his usual respectful tone, as does his using a line of questions to prove his point about Watson stupidity.

    • I disagree on both counts.There is no way you would shoot the friend in that situation or look lightly on someone who did, so clearly it is not benign except due to being part of a joke and thus understood to be untrue. If it were unlikely enough that the man was alive for shooting him to be benign, the joke would be less funny. I think the Holmes-Watson joke humor doesn’t require ‘you idiot’.

    • I think “benign” here means “a low enough harm that we might not enforce usual norm against such things, at least not at the usual punishment level.” We might disapprove the shooting, but not at the usual level for a shooting. Holmes treating Watson with less that the usual respect seems essential to that joke to me.

      • I agree with Katja. The Holmes joke is funny without the insult, and the hunter joke is still funny (though perhaps dark enough to get fewer laughs) if the shot is followed by dying scream. In fact, the premise of that joke is that there is ambiguity about whether the person is dead.

        But still, I think the benign violation theory has a lot going for it.

  • Frank Adamek

    This description fits my favorite styles of humor. But the norms I joke about breaking are those of physics and causality. Therefore, my compatriots and I are terribly ambitious


  • Cyan

    What’s the norm violation in Who’s on first? (No, What’s the guy on second!)

    The humor here seems to be pure incongruity between Abbott’s meaning and Costello’s meanings of the words they’re saying and the resulting misunderstanding.

  • In both “Who’s On First” and the Holmes joke, norms of conversation are violated. We expect to be warned when words are used with atypical meanings. We expect our interlocutors to come to the point more directly than Holmes does here – both to Watson and to the audience of the joke.

    (We also expect Abbott to have the sense to recognize why Costello is going nuts; this violation of verisimilitude makes the gag less and less funny for me as it’s belabored.)

    A further norm is the duty of a fictional character to stay in character. I considered writing that the Holmes joke is no less funny if he says “Yes, Watson, that is indeed a reasonable inference; but I would call your attention to a further inference that you did not mention, namely—”. But that would be a fib; there is shock-comedy in deviating from how Holmes customarily speaks (as played by Rathbone; less so if he’s played by Brett).

  • Vlad

    There was an Asimov story about why jokes are funny (unfortunately I don’t recall the title…) and it had this joke in it:

    The husband on the death bed calls his wife: “I have to tell you something before I die. I cheated you with the secretary.” To which the wife answers: “I know honey, why else would I have poisoned you?”

    It seems to support John Maxwell IV point. The norm violation here is more clearly not benign. It seems funny simply because of the surprising answer. Perhaps the combination is not so much norm violation + benign, but norm violation + surprise? Benign norm violations might be special cases of surprising norm violations, because we usually expect norm violations to matter.

    Btw, this theory seems somewhat similar to Ramachandran’s theory that laughter is a social signal that a possible threat, and norm violations are just one type of threat, is not really serious (we laugh in order to inform others about the benign nature of an apparent threat).

  • Jack

    I find much truth in this description of humor. It reminds me of the varied reactions by critics to the movie Kick Ass. Many aspects of the movie violate norms (nearly all critics agreed on this point). However, they disagreed about the severity/malignancy of the violations. Those who found the violations benign found the movie humorous, those who felt the violations were too egregious found the movie offensive.

    • Robert Koslover

      You know, I think that explains why my friends and I many years ago found the movie “The Exorcist” to be simply hilarious, despite the fact that it was not intended (or so we had been told) to be interpreted as comedy.

  • Evan

    I think that the commenter have done a good job of finding jokes that don’t fit into the “norm evasion” paradigm, but most of the ones they’ve found (“Who’s On First,” “Watson you idiot, someone has stolen our tent,” and “Make sure he’s dead”) easily fit into another paradigm Robin has written about frequently in the past, status signaling.

    In those three jokes we are laughing because someone is doing something foolish that I think most of us would presume we are far too smart to do. Most of us would never shoot someone because we misinterpreted a sentence, fail to realize our tent was stolen, and most of us would like to think we’d catch on faster that “Who, What and I Don’t Know” are proper names. We are likely laughing to signal that we are superior in intellect to the characters in the jokes, and therefore merit higher status.

    I suppose you could argue that this is, in a way, another method of covertly violating social norms, in this case egalitarian norms. Laughing at someone we regard as inferior is probably less likely to invite reprisals for egalitarian norm violation than outright insulting them, especially since laughter is not entirely voluntary.

    • Laura

      I actually have to say the reason why I think the names
      “Who, What, and I Don’t Know” from Who’s on First stems from two things: First – I think the choice of names is funny, as in ridiculous incongruous funny. Second – I also find the confusion that stems from their use in subsequent conversation to be funny also. Therefore funny from two directions – doubly funny! The reason why I like this humor so much is not because I think I am better/above/smarter than the person creating the humor but more from the fact that I might make a similar mistake should such a situation arise in my life.

  • harry

    Well, lots of people here argue like they think all humor is dependant upon norm violation.
    Puns are not.
    And laughter alone could induce laughing in people who hear it.

    “A man sent ten different puns to friends in the hope that at least one of the puns would make them laugh. Unfortunately, no pun in ten did.”

  • JB

    I still like the theory that we find humor generally in things that might seem dangerous/threatening/awkward, but we realize that they are not, or at least not to a great degree. This is why someone slipping and falling can be funny (as long as they aren’t really hurt), or why friends laugh when they playfully insult each other.

    I think norm violation fits into either awkwardness or potential danger, depending on the kind of norm. But at the basic level, it makes sense to me that laughter is a response to something that might seem negative or threatening, but when we realize it is not, we communicate it by laughing at it. Hence cliched statements along the lines of, “I laugh in the face of danger,” i.e., in situations that would make many afraid, I am confident and do not feel threatened.

    • Laura

      In response to JB, I would say the things that I find funny about slipping and falling are actually not in whether or not there was an impact or pain that occurred but more in the hilarity of physical position that occurrs when you lose control of your body for that brief second and try to regain it. The laughter that may come from the fact that you were not hurt would be more linked to relief laughter/ like the nervous kind that comes if you are or were afraid or upset. For me insults are only funny with friends when I know for a fact that there is either a) truth in the insult but I remain sure of the friend’s love/acceptance of me anyway or b) the insult is so outlandish that it cannot possibly be true but it would be funny if it were.

  • I just added to this post.

  • The role of benign in this is interesting and important. Benignity is a very relative thing. I might find some of my grandmothers racist jokes to be not benign (and not funny to me) while she would find many of my sexist and sexual jokes to be not benign, and not funny.

    Further, the guy shooting his friend to make sure he is dead, “my best friend ran off with my wife and I miss him” and so on, these are not benign except possibly to the extent they just seem ridiculous. No one would be stupid enough to shoot someone when asked to make sure they are dead, that’s the benignity in that one. What’s the benignity in “my best friend ran off with my wife and I miss him?” This is a totally realistic situation, people cheat with their friends wives all the time (not often enough for my tastes actually 🙂 ) so it is not unlikeliness that makes it benign. Maybe it is that he misses his friend instead of his wife, that he is not sad to see HER go that makes it benign?

  • Basil Hugh Hall

    Robin, this is only part of the story. See my essay at the site below

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  • Faul Sname

    Is it bad that the first thought that came into my head was “Oh, that explains dead baby jokes.”
    I interpreted Robin’s explanation to mean that something is funny if it violates norms in a way that is harmless. Dead baby jokes (and the hunters joke and the poisoning the husband joke, for that matter) would not be funny if there were a possibility that they could refer to real situations. However, they show that the joke-teller has violated norms (not joking about death or harming babies) in a harmless fashion, so it’s funny. Those who think that the joke is harmful won’t find it funny.
    Yes, I did really just analyze dead baby jokes.

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