The Psychology of Humor

On why humor is about power, control and the balance of intellect and emotions

In ancient times, humor or comic was strictly censored. In places like Greece and Egypt, jokes were even forbidden in social situations. Considering the almost taboo nature of humor, it’s hardly surprising that humor never received particular attention from ancient scholars. Plato was averse to humor as jokes and sarcasm were not encouraged and men and women were expected to be serious rather than frivolous about all issues. Some ancient scholars went to the extent to argue that humor could lead to sarcasm, disrespect, vulgar or volatile discourse and finally anger, resentment and even murder.

Despite this there are some interesting anecdotal evidence that humor was used as a means to express wit and learning. Consider French writer Voltaire or even in relatively modem times Oscar Wilde and his extremely witty characters in The Picture of Dorian Gray. These writers used wit and humor to influence people, to stir emotions in their readers and their conversing abilities were fresh and exciting. Humor typically has an element of shock and awe and readers or listeners are shaken beyond their limits of self-control to burst into laughter. Uncontrollable laughter as related to humor was against the strict moral laws of Plato. Even Aristotle seemed to believe in some restrictions on humorous conversation. Humor was suited to a clown in restricted scenarios and serious self-respecting men and women did not engage in buffoonery.

In a way humor is like alcohol or an addictive substance. It makes you lose your self-control. Plato argued that humor can lead to violent reactions and laughter often results in a loss of self-control. Maybe, this perceived danger of humor, the fact that humor can make people a slave to their emotions is one of the reasons why humor has been so tightly controlled and censored by ancient scholars. Moreover the general belief was that humor could lead to jokes about serious issues as people may not be able to draw the line as to where they should stop joking and become serious.

A recent example of humor gone bad is the case of Charlie Hebdo. The magazine has been under repeated attacks as their humorous cartoons on Prophet Muhammad and on the aftermath of Italian earthquake were considered in bad taste and insensitive. The concept of humor has been anthropologically tied to aggressive and mocking behavior of apes. However historically humor has been linked with a type of play so humor is primarily applied to situations that are comic. However, laughter has often been associated with scorn, mockery and sarcasm.

Philosophically, humor has been explained with the superiority theory, the relief and incongruity theory. Superiority theory suggests that humor and ridicule are often used against an adversary as by joking about someone, we establish our superiority. This theory suggests that laughter helps us to establish superiority. The Relief theory suggests that humor is a form of relief of the nervous system and laughter acts as a valve and helps in relieving the pent-up nervous energy.

The relief theory is a popular theory in philosophy and is congruent with the Freudian theory of humor as Freud argued that humor is the release of sexual energy and repressed unconscious thoughts and emotions on hostility and sexuality are often given vent through laughter and jokes. This means that if you feel sexually attracted to someone or feel hostility towards someone, you’ll tend to joke to release some of that pent-up sexual or aggressive tension. Even our laughter at the comic represents some sort of venting of the excess libidinal energy.

One of the most successful theories of humor is the incongruity theory that suggests that humor or laughter is linked to the perception of something incongruous so a humorous act or comment may be outrageous, unexpected or do not fit our mental patterns. This is obviously a more plausible explanation and has supporters such as Kant and Schopenhauer.

Both the relief theory and the incongruity theory can be explained synergistically as when we experience incongruous or completely unexpected events, actions or comments, we go through a state of shock or disbelief and the nervous energy created as a result of this shock or disbelief is released through laughter. So I would suggest both the incongruity theory and the relief theory are relevant in explaining how we perceive humor. However most philosophers and psychologists have explained just one side of the story – the mechanism of perception of humor. There is very little research on why some people are more humorous than others.

Think of the comedian or clown, the witty speaker or author, the jester and the joker. Writers like Voltaire are exemplary for their wit, intellect and their ability to arouse strong emotions in people. I propose a theory of balance of the intellect and emotions and suggest that the witty humorist is capable of masterfully maneuvering his emotions in a way that allows him to express these emotions in a uniquely intelligent manner. I would suggest that humorists seem to have a balanced left-brain and right brain processing. Contrary to Plato’s understanding of humor, I would argue that a humorist is a master of self-control and one who is capable of balancing his emotions and intellect to come up with actions and statements that will have a definite impact on people. The primary intention of the humorist is to create shock and awe and make an impact on the audience through subtle indirect maneuvering of people’s emotions using his own intellect. Humor is about power and control of the humorist as much as it is a release of nervous energy of the audience. A comedian seeks to mesmerize you and control your emotions through his jokes and humor. You, the unsuspecting audience happily give in to the unexpectedness, the shock and awe of it all and stand captivated under the power of the humorist, ready to release your pent-up nervous energy through uncontrolled laughter.

No matter what Plato wrote or thought about the supposed vice of humor, humor is actually like alcohol or drugs, it helps you to lose control and you feel good about it. Humor is also like magic, it captivates you and you are in a state of disbelief and awe. When you laugh, the humorist has this complete control over you and you don’t even realize it. The humorist also releases his own tension through the audience. Plato and Aristotle definitely understood that humor is about losing one’s own power and control over the emotions. What they did not acknowledge however is that humor itself is a tool for power and that the humorist is often an individual of superior intellect, social skills, emotional control and personal power.