The prejudice against pessimism

Kiruna_church_2009_15_Öfvermod  Ülbus

You would think that having an accurate view of yourself, your situation and others around you would contribute to mental health. Well-adjusted humans are supposed to see the world realistically, and believing illusions is considered a hallmark of mental illness. But it is simply not that way. People tend to filter information in a positive light, and society rewards this. Evidently believing illusion makes humans happier. So the average view of reality is actually overly optimistic.

Our manner of gathering data is not at all based on logical and unbiased observation. We gather a piece here and there and fill in the blanks with our own self-serving prejudices. As humans, we interpret what we see to be advantageous to ourselves. This viewpoint colors almost everything we observe. We tend to live our lives viewing the world around us and ourselves with an enduring pattern of bias.

We know we all make mistakes, right? But we view our own errors as small as inconsequential, while we tend to view our successes as more spectacular than they really are. This is reflected in personality tests in which people judge themselves to have far more positive traits than negative. It seems that you really do not have to teach children to have positive self-esteem, as most people rapidly take to that tactic. Also people tend to forget incidents where they exhibited negative behavior. Therefore the question “What is the biggest mistake you ever made?” is not so difficult to answer because it embarrasses us. It stumps the typical person because their memories tend to forget that mistake.

In psychological experiment in which people must predict whether or not they will fail or succeed in a task, they err on the side of assuming success. And there is that pervasive tendency for the majority of people to respond to surveys indicating they see themselves as happier, smarter, and more able or well-adjusted than the average human. Of course it is not logically possible for most people to be better than others. So why do we cling to this illogical view? Why do we label those who have more balanced in self-perceptions as low in self-esteem, or moderately depressed?

In the following weeks I want to look at our prejudice against pessimism. What exactly drives it? Is it simply a fade of our times or has it always existed? I want to examine this tendency for most people to fail to see themselves as they really are, and look down on those who do.

Alicke, M. D. (1985). Global self-evaluation as determined by the desirability and controllability of trait adjectives. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49, 1621-1630.
Campbell, J. D. (1986). Similarity and uniqueness: The effects of attribute type, relevance, and individual differences in self-esteem and depression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 281- 294.
Fiske, S. T., & Taylor, S. E. (1984). Social cognition. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Nisbett, R. E., & Ross, L. (1980). Human inference: Strategies and shortcomings of social judgment. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Watson, D., & Clark, L. A. (1984). Negative affectivity: The disposition to experience aversive emotional states. Psychological Bulletin, 96, 465-490.
Posted in Group psychology, Leadership, Manipulation, Persuasion | Leave a comment

Faking funny

Feb 071 laughter Everybody loves the sound of laughter don’t they? The muffled giggle, the high pitch twitter, the polished chuckle, the wheezing chortle, and the deep belly laugh can all be taken differently depending on who is uttering the sound. Real involuntary laughter is often contagious in groups, one person catches on to a joke and others join in with rounds of laughter that rise and fall. But faked laughter is more common in everyday life. It typically serves a type of social interaction and can be used to smooth over differences, appease a person perceived as more important, to draw attention to oneself or increase group cohesion by aiming guffaws of scoffs at an outsider.

A common use of the manufactured laughter, which tends to be slower and more nasal in tone, is to bond with other people. However, faked laughter is only appealing if we actually like the person doing doing it. I heard a guy comment once that a particular group of girls were not attractive enough to be giggling so much. He understood their artificial laughter as a kind of flirtation, and was uncomfortable with it because he did not find them appealing.

According to studies conducted by UCLA associate professor Greg Bryant, most people can only distinguish faked laughter about two/thirds of the time. Detection is based on the “breathiness” of the laugh, which is composed of the vocalized sound, “ha, ha, ha” and rapid breathing. The slower the laugh is the more we hear the vocalization and the more controlled the breaths seem; both are cues for detecting faked mirth.

And there is a third kind of laughter – the insidious, haunting kind of laughter. What makes it different from the other two? It hints of insincerity because the breathing is clearly controlled, unlike the gasping of real laughter, and it is often marked by pitch that trails downward. However, the situation does affect our opinion. A genuine deep belly laugh at what the rest of us consider revolting or grotesque, still seems very twisted.

Bryant’s studies are based on idea that many animals use laughter to indicate playfulness similar to a real human laugh. Most people are familiar with the hysterical sounds made by chimpanzees. But what do they find so outrageously funny? Usually nothing. Their laugh is used to ease social situations. Did you realize that dogs, also have a way of chuckling? You may not be able to perceive it because it is much more like wheezing than human laughter. However you do not have to worry that your dog is poking fun of you. Dogs use chuckling to appease others, just like people do.

Posted in Group psychology, Laughter and humor, Persuasion | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

No one wants to laugh alone

DSC_3033c Just beyond the door of my office a photographer was setting up a lights. He was also chatting with everyone who passed by. Finally he got down to the business of spreading out the tripods that held the lights. Then, I heard a clunk and soft crunch followed by a giggle from the resident of the office next to mine that keep on going. Even though I didn’t see, I didn’t have to wonder what was so humorous. The photographer told the story to every upper level manager that came to pose for their business portrait.

“I was setting up the lights quickly, and didn’t bother to move the boxes they came out of. At one point I over extended myself and landed on the box. I didn’t think anyone saw and then I heard the laughter that keep coming.” The photographer told the story chuckling at himself much of the time.

I understood the purpose of his self-effacing humor. He wanted the harried executives to relax and look more pleasant, and his humorous little story helped. If he had actually hurt himself the woman in the next office wouldn’t have laughed so much. What is interesting is how we spontaneously laugh at someone else looking very foolish in a manner that tends to actually bring us closer together. Chuckling serves as a social glue and we often laugh at something that is not really funny at all.  As researcher Sophie Scott begun to study expressions of emotions and in particular laughter she found that the person who typically does most of the laughing during a conversation is also the person that does most of the talking. It appears being mirthful is a way of trying to maintain social relationships.

Most of us are familiar with fake laughs – chuckles and giggles interspersed in conversation when nothing funny is said. Scott studied not only the difference in sound of these forced laughs but also the difference in the way that the brain responds to this kind of laughter versus the authentic kind. Interestingly response to different kinds of laughter is based more on the relationship with the person than whether the laughter is faked or real. If we dislike a person, their frequent faked laughter will strike a note of discord.

Most important in Scott’s research on the social aspects of humor is that people prefer comedy when in groups, in fact the larger the group, the more people tend to laugh. When my daughter was younger, we started watching “America’s Funniest Videos” – an almost endless parade of short video clips showing people slipping, sliding, missing a step, or whatever would cause a fall. Sometimes these were punctuated by trying out ridiculous ideas, such as the preschool teacher who tried to hang a piñata on an emergency sprinkler head and ended up showering the eagerly awaiting little ones. However as she got to be a teenager when it was no longer cool to hang out with parents, she still wanted keep up this ritual. Laughing is just not as enjoyable if you are not laughing with someone else.

David Robson, Why do we laugh inappropriately? BBC Future 23 March 2015

Posted in Group psychology, Laughter and humor | Leave a comment

A proper repartee

Southern-belle-civil-warThe group of women were discussing their mother’s instructions on being a “Southern Lady,” and in their story telling manner they competed with each other trying to relate the most outlandish piece of advice.

“I never could understand that bit about making sure I had on clean underwear before going on a car trip in case I was in an accident,” drawled one.

“Me neither,” agreed a second woman with a honeyed giggle, “If I were in a car crash and bleeding, I doubt anyone would be worried about how clean my underwear was.”

“Still she would remind me every time we got in the car.” The first woman continued with a laugh, “Sometime she simply would insist that I go back in the house and put on another pair.”

“My mother would insist that I put on clean underwear, too,” a third woman chimed in. “I simply refuse to do it.”

“What a great way to stand up to your mom, by intentionally wearing dirty underwear.” I commented straight faced.

At first they looked confused, and finally one of them shot me a dirty look. Which brings me to the difficulty with using sarcasm as humor. I realize it is a biting way of saying what I really don’t mean to bring attention to a flaw. Unlike satire, a type of buffoonery often expressed when the subject of ridicule is not there, sarcasm almost always requires the presence of the person caught in the act to make sense. The inflection of a sarcastic comment is subtle. It is not accompanied with “Let me tell you this one…” or the laugh and giggles that often mark brazen attempts at humor at the expense of others. Without these cues some people sometimes are unsure how to respond.

However, there is a benefit to getting the gist of this kind of humor, even if it is aimed at you. The extra work to understand unspoken meaning behind sarcasm actually seems to make us smarter. In a study in Israel, college students listening to complaints on a customer service line were able to come up with more creative solutions to problem if the complaint was delivered in a sarcastic tone of voice. University of Haifa psychologist, Simone Shamay-Tsoory noted that people’s ability to understand sarcasm is related their level of social cognition. She found the area of the brain responding to comments that means the opposite of what one is saying also enables us to recognize emotions and social issues. When people suffered damage to the prefrontal lobe, which controls executive processing, they have a harder time picking up sarcasm. The loss of ability to “get” a sarcastic remark may be the beginning of a brain disease.[1]

Psychologist Penny Pexman from University of Calgary confirmed in her study that people are more likely to use sarcasm with the friends than strangers. She also found that children as young as five can be adept at picking up the real meaning behind facetious comments. They evidently learn it from their parents. But then research has also have uncovered significant regional differences. A whopping 20% more Northerners in the U.S found sarcasm funnier than people from the South did.[2] So I suppose I shouldn’t look too harshly on the trio of “Southern” women not knowing the appropriate way to respond to sarcasm – with an even wittier barb.

[1] David Adam, “Highest functions of brain produce lowest form of wit”, Monday 23 May 2005
[2] Richard Chin, “The Science of Sarcasm? Yeah, Right”, November 14, 2011
Posted in Creativity, Laughter and humor, Sarcasm | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

But am I funny?

A-fest12 022 cThere are advantages to being considered humorous, even if you do not want to spend your life in front of an audience as a comedian. People who communicate with humor are often perceive as being more socially attractive and more competent communicators. They also tend to be less lonely. Students feel that teachers who appropriately use humor are more in touch with them, and workers view bosses who crack a few jokes as having a great immediacy.

However, before you gather your collection of puns and one-liners remember that believing you are funny doesn’t necessarily make you so to others.  There is a skill involved here. Traits that are found in people who are considered humorous include: adaptability in communication, desire to make a positive impressions, orientation towards feeling/emotions, and being able to see the irony in a situation. So how do you know if you are funny? The Humor Orientation Scale has been developed by a pair of West Virginia University researchers so you can rate your Humor Orientation or HO. But there is a caveat, your peers must also think you are funny, so recruit a couple of acquaintance that will honestly rate you according to this scale.

Humor is not just the content of what you say, but also the manner of delivery. People who have high HO scores are perceived as being funnier than those with low HO scores, even when delivering the same jokes. However there are other dimensions to what is considered funny. For example, in a class room instructors who had the ability to get a group to laugh were considered more humorous by students also had high HO scores. The students with low HO scores simply did not see them as being as funny. But maybe they have stiffer requirements for humor, because instructors with low HO scores were not considered funny by either group of students.

A study from Baldwin Wallace University has linked decoding ability and humor orientation. Decoding ability involves three parts: conversational sensitivity, nonverbal sensitivity, and receiver apprehension. The more sensitive the person was to both verbal and non-verbal cues the higher the person’s humor orientation tended to be. However, sometimes sensitivity results in apprehension which led to a negative correlation to being perceived as funny.

Content of humor, however does still matter. Verbally aggressive people tend to use humor at the expense of others. Targeting others for laughs doesn’t necessarily cause a lower perception of their humorous ability but it caused their “likeability” or rating for social attractiveness to plummet according to research.

Finally, understanding the language and culture of your audience is crucial for being funny. On time I sat listening to an educational speaker who often managed to get a chuckle out of others bemoan the time he was presenting in China. “I was using the same jokes and puns that always get a laugh, but the just people sat their deadpan,” he complained. “So I asked the translator if she was translating me word for word or restating the meaning in her own words. She admitted she was restating the meaning. That’s why it wasn’t funny.”

I was taken back that he failed to comprehend that jokes and puns don’t translate well. These kinds of humor rely on words sounding similar in a particular language. I tried to explain that if she had translated his speech word for word it still wouldn’t have been funny and the Chinese audience might have thought his presentation was a bit nonsensical. However, he continued to whine about how the translator ruined his humor, which got eventually got a chuckle out of me.

Booth-Butterfield, S., & Booth-Butterfield, M. (1991). Individual differences in the communication of humorous messages. Southern Communication Journal, 56, 205–218.
Merolla, Andy J. Decoding Ability and Humor Production, Communication Quarterly 05/2006; 54(2):175-189.
Wanzer, M., Booth-Butterfield, M., & Booth-Butterfield, S. (1995). The funny people: A source-orientation to the communication of humor. Communication Quarterly, 43, 142–154.
Wanzer, M. B., Booth-Butterfield, M., & Booth-Butterfield, S. (1996). Are funny people more popular: The relationship of humor orientation, loneliness, and social attraction. Communication Quarterly, 44, 42–52.



Posted in Educational trends, Laughter and humor | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

How does laughter affect learning?

01 enthusedHumor was not my initial intention. I had collected a number of paired items to demonstrate the concept of a logo as a symbol, including a heavy sign from an upscale realty company complete with wooden post. The college students soon caught on to how a logo provides more than information. It also elicits a feeling. As I held up the realtor sign for them to compare to the generic “For Sale” placard, I asked “What would you call this?” From the back of the room came the response “Stolen.” A series of giggles and snorting guffaws rolled through the class.

I could have protested. Having legitimately borrowed the sign from the local realtor’s office rather than sneakily removing one from a neighbor’s yard, I was no thief. But I did not complain. The bit of humor grabbed those whose attention had wandered. A joke is definitely a way to wake up a group growing drowsy from too much information. However, the incident left me wondering if laughing actually helps people learn?

Imagine two different scenarios: one class in which the instruction is always logical and serious; another class in which the instructor frequently interject jokes that tangentially deal with the subject. In which class do students learn more? It depends both on how the comedy relates to the course and to the students. Researcher Melissa Bekelja Wanzer, , of Canisius College finds inappropriate humor, especially that which is directed at students, interferes with learning.

One of the first rules is too make sure the humor, used inside the class or on-line communication, is not offensive. Mark Shatz, and Frank LoSchiavo, Ohio University-Zanesville psychology professors, discovered that when a professor used self-deprecating jokes, and appropriate subject-related cartoons their students utilized the online instructional system more and also said they enjoyed the class more. However Wanzer warned that repeatedly putting oneself down could lead students to view the instructor as less competent.

Secondly, comedy must fit in with the course material. Wasner found that when professors use a dry sense of humor when instructing, the students perceived them as better communicators. In the same manner doctors who occasionally spoke in a witty manner were viewed more favorably by their patients. However most of the studies on how humor affect learning end up with mixed results. Possibly because what each person finds as sufficient, but not overdone humor is different.

John Hopkins University professor, Ron Berk, PhD, uses humorous skits to promote learning in his biostatistics class. His goal is to help students with different learning styles see how statistics work and encourage divergent learning that is applicable in real life. But humor’s role in relieving stress is what makes it valuable in his estimation. “It helps relieve fear and reduce anxiety…prior to or during an exam, humorous directions or test items may relieve students’ tension and help them perform better.”

So remember to keep your best, most relevant joke to tell just before that killer exam.

Shatz,, Mark and LoSchiavo , Frank, Teaching of Psychology, Vol. 32, No. 4, pages 246-248, 2005
Stambor, Zak. How laughing leads to learning. Monitor , Vol 37, No. 6, June 2006
Wasner, Melissa. “Use of Humor in the Classroom” In Our Teaching Behavior, Communication Education, 48—62
Posted in Creativity, Educational trends, Laughter and humor | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

No laughing matter

StateLibQld_2_177635_Serious_faced_group_of_school_children_The support shown for the people killed in the attack on Charlie Hebdo’s office appeared wide spread throughout the news. Candle light vigils, crowds proclaiming “Je suis Charlie.” It would almost seem like a great show of solidarity. But of course if this satirical journal truly had such widespread support the attack would have never happened. Satire draws selected people and current events in an absurd perspective. People are more likely to pay attention to satirical lampooning than a serious discussion of flaws. The political humor makes people feel superior, as long as their group is not the ones being lampooned. But most people made to look absurd feel more wounded when they are mocked than when they are openly critiqued.

Charlie Hebdo had a particularly irreligious brand of mockery. They been sued jointly by Islamic organizations – the Grand Mosque, the Muslim World League, and the Union of French Islamic Organizations – but not as often as they had been sued by the Catholic Church. However, this journal tended to avoid anti-Semitism. Cartoons with anti-Jewish sentiment had appeared frequently in Nazi Germany while the holocaust was going on. So this subject was no longer a laughing matter.

Which brings us to the power that satire actually has. Satirical works, whether they are cartoons and articles, or full blown books and movies, deride some person, group or belief. The idea is to shame the target so that the object of the attack seems ridiculous or grotesque.  Satire has the power to cause disregard or even hatred for the target. There is no requirement for the satirical work to be true – in fact it almost never is – but it must only be funny to a large enough group. If satire wakes the public to a great wrong, offering a backhanded viewpoint that would right that wrong, such as in Daniel Defoe’s Modest Proposal, it has a strength that simply preaching against the problem does not have. But satire’s power to be destructive is just as potent. There is little way to combat the ideas expressed by satire, other than by government suppression, which seems unthinkable to those who so proudly cling to freedom of speech.

As I was watched CNN with their constant coverage after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, I heard a man interviewed in France compare it to the September 11 attack on World Trade Center in New York. I winced. He couldn’t possibly believe these two events were similar in scope. The masses of people who died in the twin towers did nothing to provoke the attack. I could have mocked him; making him look ignorant. But satire doesn’t work that way. It is an offensive game; you must strike first. Speak back in a serious manner and you are seen as humorless. Squash it with any sort of power and it is seen as an affront.  Once satire has been attacked it takes on an aura of respectability. The best thing to do is simply not to laugh.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Uneasy laughter


My son had looked eagerly towards the six grade field trip to the science museum. So it surprised me that on the afternoon of the field trip I received a call from the vice principal saying there was a problem. Evidently my son and his seat mate, annoyed by the student behind them who wouldn’t stop kicking their seat, tied the student’s shoe laces together.  They had tied them so tight that they couldn’t be untied and had to be cut. Now the vice principal was demanding that my son write a letter of apology.

So I asked to talk to him. “Now tell me exactly what happened?”

“I asked Chad to stop kicking the seat, but he wouldn’t.” My son explained.

“Then, how did you tie Chad’s laces together?” I asked a bit perplexed.

I could hear the vice principal warning my son not to mention names.

“Well, his shoe laces were untied, flopping around,” my son continued. “The bus stopped because of all the people…  near the museum. He stood up to look. So we reached under the seat and tied them together. But we couldn’t see what we were doing. We tied them in front of the bar, the one under the seat. When he tried to get out he kept pulling them against the bar, really hard. We could have untied the knot it if he hadn’t pulled so hard.”

If the vice principal had been listening closely, he could have heard me laughing on the other end of the phone. In my mind I could see the annoying  Chad kicking the back of their seat, or popping up and down in his own – a regular hyperactive nuisance so unaware of what he was doing that he didn’t notice the two boys in front of him surreptitiously tying his laces together. And when he did notice, his attempt to jerk the knot lose through brute force only made things worse. So I told my son not to mention my laughing, and just go ahead and write the apology. I would talk to him at the Boy Scout meeting after school.

My son had not mentioned which friend had helped him pulled off this caper. However it became evident half way through the Boy Scout meeting when another mother entered with the look of a slow boil and called out “John, I need to talk to you!” with an intimidating tone of rebuke that caused everyone to tremble. However, I had to bite my cheeks to keep from laughing again. My son and the other boy were “trustworthy scouts.” So much so that their leader gave them extra responsibilities. It crossed my mind that perhaps he had taught the typical lore of tying knots too well.

But there was another reason the John’s mother was so irritated at him.  John’s father had a scar all the way around his ankle. It was the result of a prank that occurred when he was much younger. Two boys had a strung a wire tightly across a trail, hoping to get their kicks laughing when some one tripped and fell down. However, it was strung so taut that when he ran into it, the force caused the wire to recoil and almost completely sever his ankle. His parents had rushed him to the hospital with his food barely attached to his leg. Fortunately there was a doctor skilled in this kind of surgery living in the town and through very meticulous surgery he was able to re-attach the foot in a manner so it would function normally, but the huge scar remained.

We all want to laugh; it feels good. My son and his friend didn’t cause any lasting damage to Chad in their practical joke that was an attempt to teach him a lesson. But our laughter often comes at the expense of others. Sometimes it results in permanent harm. It is not just laughing at others in their embarrassing moment. Often it involves extensive planning to cause the embarrassing moment. So what is really behind this uneasy kind of laughter?

Posted in Group psychology, Laughter and humor, Leadership | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The sexual side of laughter

Fotothek_df_roe-neg_0006547_Once I heard a bit of advice spoken by one adolescent boy to another. “Do you want to know if a girl likes you? Tell a really stupid joke, the stupider the better. If she laughs, she likes you.” It has been obvious for eons that laughter has a sexual side. I am not referring to sex as the subject of humor, but the differences in the way that the sexes perceive what is funny and how they respond with laughter.

Allan Reiss and colleagues of Stanford University studied the response of male and female brains when reading comics. To a large degree that used similar parts of the brain, those used of to make sense of semantics and juxtaposition of ideas in speech. However the part of brain that deals with executive processing where activated more in the womens’ brains than the men’s. Part of the mesolimbic reward center was  more active for women when they found a comic funny, which indicated that finding humor was both more pleasurable and unexpected for them.

Let’s return to our first example. If an adolescent boy told a really stupid joke, a typical female laughing in response would be an indication of approval. His male peers would be more likely to respond with a kind of laughter known as scoffing, to show him how stupid the joke really was. Boys, and even men, commonly use humor as a kind of competitive social humiliation. We tend to think nothing of the way they poke fun at other males, putting each other down. However, when adolescent girls laugh at other girls in a ridiculing manner, they are considered “mean girls,” the kind of cliquish queen bees who use cruel humor to maintain their superiority over others.

Women’s humor is expected to be socially supportive, whether they are laughing at a man’s not so funny joke, or with their female friends about a common situation. According to Don Nilsen, a linguistics professor at Arizona State University, a woman who employs the typically aggressive or competitive male sense of humor, finds that both men and other women are critical of her.

So what about men who laugh in the way  that society proscribes for women to laugh? In an appeasing manner that shows cohesiveness with the ideas of those around them? Yes, men laugh that way… in front of their bosses. So the sexual side of humor is not affected as much by the way genders perceive what is funny – the brain functions only have slight differences according to the Standford study – as it is by role society has assigned to humor for each of the genders.

Photo from Deutsche Fotothek
Allan Reiss, MD, the Howard C. Robbins Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research. Dean Mobbs, Nov. 7 online issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Willow Lawson, “Humor’s Sexual Side” Psychology Today, article 200508, published on September 1, 2005 – last reviewed on December 20, 2012



Posted in Gender differences, Group psychology, Laughter and humor | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Laughing at or laughing with?

Return_To_Innocence cIt was a preschool performance put on for parents and doting grandparents; rehearsed, but not enough, with the teachers scampering back and forth to locate students that were supposed to be one stage. During one of these interludes a group of 4-year-olds waited patiently for their teacher to reappear with the missing students. Except for one girl, she knew she was supposed to recite first.  So she walked directly up to the microphone, and giggled nervously.  A few people in the crowd laughed back softly, so she giggled a bit louder,  and the crowd responded in kind. This back and forth crescendo of laughter, between the chuckles from the young girl and loud guffaws from the amused crowd continued for a full two minutes before the teacher rushed on stage to  gently snatch away the microphone. However it is the only part of that preschool recital that I remember. Possibly, because that 4 year old girl was my daughter.

Years later, she still recalls that moment. My daughter told me how she started laughing because she was nervous, not knowing what to do without the teacher. (Many adults respond the same way when placed in unfamiliar social situations.) When the people laughed back, she thought they were pleased, so she kept up the dialog of giggles. “I thought they were laughing with me, not laughing at me. I didn’t know the difference.”

The difference, which is not that clear cut, has given birth to the various theories of laughter.  Thomas Hobbes described laughter as the response of one person trying to express superiority to another person. For him humor was always at someone else’s expense. It called attention to other’s faults and foibles in a way that glorified oneself. In an ironic twist the people who laughed the most, were the ones who felt the need to establish superiority because they obviously were inferior. Of course he was not the first to express this idea, named the superiority theory of laughter. Plato recorded a very similar idea.

Sigmund Freud, who theorized that life in civilized society required repression of man’s sexual and aggressive drives, had a different take on laughter. It was an acceptable and pleasurable release from energy bottled up by all this repression. He saw humor as a defense mechanism, it which a person could express what they repressed in a tolerated manner.

But neither of these theories really expresses what was occurring during that preschool performance, so I looked for other theories. In the eighteenth century Joseph Addison and David Hartley, reiterated a theory that had appeared in the past. Laughter is a response to incongruities.  Such is the humor found in a visual or verbal pun, two different meanings, which express both a resemblance and an opposition, create a tension that results in humor. Recognizing the unexpected reversal causes laughter.

Although the crowd at the preschool performance may have been laughing at my daughter, it was done in a kindly manner, not such as Hobbes theorized. And part of the laughter was generated by my daughter’s innocent belief that the crowd was laughing with her. Their response could hardly be considered a sociably acceptable way of expressing aggression. Perhaps there was an incongruity, although I find it hard to pinpoint. Maybe for a brief two minutes we all laughed because it felt good.

Photo by Syed Touhid Hassan,  cc-by-2.0

Posted in Laughter and humor | Tagged , , | Leave a comment