How Good Are Laughs?

We often underestimate our different were our ancestors from us; we like to assume that even if they wore different costumes on the outside, they felt like us inside. Not true! Consider, for example, how our culture celebrates laughter. One of our worst sins is to lack a sense of humor, to be a fuddy-duddy unable to “take a joke.” But four centuries ago, it seems, attitudes were quite the opposite:

Prior to the eighteenth century, laughter was viewed by most authors almost entirely in negative terms. … All laughter was thought to arise from making fun of someone. Most references to laughter in the Bible, for example, are linked with scorn, derision, mockery, or contempt. … Aristotle … believed that [laughter] was always a response to ugliness or deformity in another person. … Thomas Hobbes saw laughter as being based on a feeling of superiority, or “sudden glory”, resulting from some perception of inferiority in another person.

During the eighteenth century … [in] Europe, … ridicule became a popular debating technique for outwitting and humiliating one’s adversaries by making them laughable to others. … With the growing view of ridicule as a socially acceptable verbal art form and a desirable part of amiable conversation, the idea of laughter as an expression of contempt and scorn gradually gave way to a view of it as a response to cleverness and gamesmanship. … [New] theories … viewed incongruity as the essence of laughter. …

Reformers began to argue in favor of a more humanitarian form of laughter based on sympathy rather than agreession. This led to a need for a new word … and humor was co-opted to serve this purpose. In contrast, the word wit began to be used to refer to the more aggressive types of laughter-evoking behaviors. … Wit was associated with comedy based on intellect, while humor involved comedy based on character. … Wit was associated with the aristocracy and elitism, whereas humor was a more bourgeois, middle-class concept, associated with universality and democracy. … Wit was considered to be more artificial, … whereas humor was viewed as more natural. …

Over the course of the twentieth century, … the distinction between wit and humor gradually disappeared, and humor [became] … the umbrella term for all thing laughable. … All laughter came to be seen as essentially benevolent and sympathetic. …

From the seventeenth to the twentieth century, popular conceptions of laughter underwent a remarkable transformation, shifting from the aggressive antipathy of superiority theory, to the neutrality of incongruity theory, to the view that laughter could sometimes by sympathetic , to the notion that sympathy was a necessary condition for laughter. …

As recently as the 1860s, it was considered impolite to laugh in public in the United States. Even in the early twentieth century, some spheres of social activity (e.g., religion, education, and politics) were considered inappropriate for humor and laughter. Today … laughter … [is] actively encouraged in virtually all social settings. …

By the 1870s … to say that someone lacked a sense of humor was seen as one of the worst things that could be said about him or her. … Over the course of the twentieth century, the concept of sense of humor … becomes increasingly vague and undefined. … Saying that someone lacked a sense of humor came to mean that he or she was excessively serious, fanatical, or egotistical, and inflexible, temperamental extremist. The lack of a sense of humor was viewed as a defining characteristic of some forms of mental illness. … In the United States, [a sense of humor] came to be seen as a distinctly American virtue, having to do with tolerance and democracy, in contrast to those living in dictatorships, such as the Germans under Nazism, or the Russians during the Communist era, who were thought to be devoid of humor. After … September 11, 2001, many American commentators expressed the opinion that Al Qaeda terrorists, and perhaps even all Moslems, lacked a sense of humor. … Until quite recently, it was commonly assumed by many writers that women generally lacked a sense of humor. … By the end of the twentieth century, humor and laughter were … seen as … important factors in mental and physical health … Hospital clowns and comedy rooms became familiar sights in many hospitals.

(pp.20-25, The Psychology of Humor, Rod Martin, 2007)

More data on laughter:

Most people think of laughter as a simple response to comedy, or a cathartic mood-lifter. Instead, after 10 years of research on this little-studied topic, I concluded that laughter is primarily a social vocalization that binds people together. It is a hidden language that we all speak. It is not a learned group reaction but an instinctive behavior programmed by our genes. Laughter bonds us through humor and play….

Speakers we observed laughed almost 50% more than their audiences. … Banal comments like, “Where have you been?” or “It was nice meeting you, too” — hardly knee-slappers — are far more likely to precede laughter than jokes. Only 10% to 20% of the laughter episodes we witnessed followed anything joke-like. … Laughter was 30 times more frequent in social than solitary situations. … Laughter is also extremely difficult to control consciously.  ..

Females laughed 126% more than their male counterparts. … Men seem to be the main instigators of humor across cultures. .. Think back to your high school class clown — most likely he was a male. …  In … newspaper personal ads, … females were 62% more likely to mention laughter in their ads, and women were more likely to seek out a “sense of humor” while men were more likely to offer it. … The laughter of the female, not the male, is the critical index of a healthy relationship. … Laughter is self-effacing behavior, and the women in my study may have used it as an unconscious vocal display of compliance or solidarity with a more socially dominant group member. … [We] laugh almost exclusively at phrase breaks in speech. … A large-scale study … found optimism and sense of humor in childhood to be inversely related to longevity. (more)

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  • It’s hard to get a sense for how people actually lived from reading philosophers.Hobbes was a Gloomy Gus, for example.

    Shakespeare, a sharp businessman, found there was good money in humor. Lincoln was famous for his jokes.

    Another problem, though, is that most things that seemed funny then don’t seem very funny now.

    • anon

      Not just Shakespeare–classical Graeco-Roman comedies contain plenty of incongruity humor. Also, the Natya Sashra, an ancient Indian treatise on the performing arts, advocates an empathy-based theory of humor, based on the actor’s expressing mirth.

  • Matt Young

    For Freud humor was an indirect method of raising a repressed thought, laughter being the anxiety of struggling with the now conscious thought in a social environment. The uncovered thought exposes the laughing person, it catches him in a lie. So laughter should be closely related to crying, both of them a form of surrender to reality.

  • Women may laugh more, but humorous television commercials are generally geared toward men: think of the tradition of Super Bowl commercials.

  • The Name of the Rose features a character — the intolerant blind librarian Jorge de Burgos — who condemns laughter and claims that “Christ never laughed!”

    It also contains a reconstruction of the second book of Aristotle’s Poetics, which dealt with comedy.

  • I will say that the fact that people had a different idea of comedy — one with which I actually subscribe (and which makes sense if you watch standup comedians) — doesn’t mean they didn’t like it. Aristophanes is a prime example. And his stuff is brutal.

    In the Symposium, Socrates argues that the tragedian should be able to write comedies and the comedies should be able to write tragedies (this makes more sense when you understand that the tragedies all ended with a satyr play, which were funny). In any case, Plato was pointing to the complexity of comedy, with its relationship to tragedy and the tragic world view.

  • Evan

    Aristotle … believed that [laughter] was always a response to ugliness or deformity in another person.

    I wonder if this is the reason that clowns were popular in the past, but many people are afraid of them now. In the past mocking deformities was far more acceptable than it is now, and it seems like clown makeup is designed to mimic deformities in some ways.

    The laughter of the female, not the male, is the critical index of a healthy relationship. … Laughter is self-effacing behavior, and the women in my study may have used it as an unconscious vocal display of compliance or solidarity with a more socially dominant group member. …

    This is the exact opposite of the sort of relationship I have, but that probably just means we’re atypical.

  • richard silliker

    Laughter is the result of concurrent feelings of dislike and like. It indicates a person’s ambivalence towards the subject.

  • “We tend to scoff at the beliefs of the ancients. But we can’t scoff at them personally, to their faces and this is what annoys me.”

    — Jack Handy

    Mr. Handy also answers Evan’s questions about why we are afraid of clowns:

  • Thursday

    It is interesting that disgust, as Lessing noted, tends to kill any aesthetic response, except in the genres of comedy or, even more, satire. Satire traffics heavily in disgust and it is interesting to note that the best stuff tends to be done by conservatives, especially social conservatives, who ironically tend to use an ostentatiously pure writing style: Aristophanes, Swift, Pope, Waugh.

    • Mercy

      Seriously? Looking around today in the UK almost all the satirical energy has been aimed at the right, and the same seems to go for the US satires we import (Colbert Report, etc), with South Park bringing up the socially progressive right-wing rearguard. Houellebecq is the closest thing to a (good!) modern conservative satirist I can think of.

      But you’re quite right that the opposite tendency holds true for much of past, I imagine the chageover happened with the triumph of Whiggish views of history and the abandonment of the old nail of the former generations is better than the stomach of the later generations attitude.

  • Wayne O. Cochran

    Unfortunately, much humor today is still derived from the demeaning of others. Look at all the “fail” postings on the Internet which focus on how funny it is that someone “fell down” and it was caught on video. I have to consciously steer clear of sites that devote much of their content to ridiculing the shortcomings of others, lest I develop the same mean spirited cynicism.

  • He may not have known of research concerning the which sees laughter as a potential influence in healing. After some thought however two things changed my mind as I came to appreciate the value of cancer jokes and laughter in general for cancer patients.. In fact it seems to me that perhaps the reason a white audience laughs at African-American or Hispanic humor is because the comic has used laughter as a lens through which we can better see our stereotypes and prejudices.

  • Jack

    Is this a farmer-forager thing?

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  • Jordan

    It seems to me like the traditional view of comedy as someone else’s tragedy is accurate, and this mainly finds two safe havens in modern society:

    1. When the tragedy is entirely fictional: If it’s not a real tragedy, it’s totally safe.
    2. When the tragedy in question is suffered by a single person or group as a result of personal ignorance, stupidity, foolishness, naïveté, etc. This is much riskier, but depending on audience and type of dumb-ness, this can also avoid large-scale criticism.