Humor Psychology

Most, if not all, of us appreciate humor. We watch movies, listen to our friends tell jokes, and even go to comedy shows. Many individuals today place a high value on humour. Many individuals, however, have historically criticized and viewed it adversely since they find it biologically weird and socially unsuitable at times. Much has been written about comedy by psychologists, much of it critical. The psychological components of the primary theories of comedy are the topic of this paper.
Superiority theory is an anti-social perspective on humor. It assumes that a person derives amusement in the misfortunes of others. Plato, an ancient philosopher, described humor as malicious and scorn and evil as he considered it a way of undermining fellow human beings. Humor was therefore rejected by some societies as it encompassed a breach of certain social rules and self-discipline. Even Christianity, as evidenced by the Bible, clearly approved this theory in that laughter was considered a show of hostility and scorn; God only laughs to scorn evildoers (Psalms 2:2). The monastic tradition, a subset of Christianity, punished those who dared smile or laugh in the church in that they were subjected to strokes of the cane and forced to fast. (Morreal, 2009)

However, in his book, ‘Laughter’, Henry Bergson views this aspect of humor as a social corrective act. When we laugh at people, they tend to improve on their shortcomings causing them to be laughed at. For instance, if people are rigid and machine-like in their activities, laughing at them stirs them up to start acting flexibly as human beings. More so, according to this theory, people cannot have laughter without comparisons with others and when people find glory, they laugh. This may not be the case since people can laugh even outside the context of these scenarios, for example an odd simile or metaphor. Superiority is therefore not necessary for amusement. (Morreal, 2009)

The second theory, Incongruity Theory, is an irrational view of humor. It suggests that laughter is caused by lack of congruency, some things that do not fit, match or are inconsistent with expectations. It is based on the concept that human past experience prepares them to tackle what they will experience. We tend to be amused when certain things happen and they don’t match our mental patterns. In ‘On the orator,” Cisero proposes that a common type of joke is when an opposite of what we expect is said. Laughter is ignited by self-disappointed expectations. This means that amusement is ignited by disparity between a notion and our perception of the notion. (Morreal, 2009)

Conversely, this theory faces a lot of criticism in that it suggests that only incongruity and inconsistency in what we expect is enough to cause laughter. This is false because some undesirable emotions like anger, disgust and fear are also reactions to our mental expectations but they are clearly far from causing laughter. For instance, if someone comes from work and finds his children murdered, it would be opposite to the expectations but that has no sense of humor. The theory is therefore psychologically irrational and perverse. It’s like travelers realizing that they are heading to the incorrect direction and laughing about it. Psychologists believe that only young underdeveloped children are too irrational to laugh at their incongruity. (Polimeni & Reiss, 2006)

The third theory, the Relief Theory views humor as a pressure valve. Once the pressure is too high, the valve flips open and pressure is released. The original version of this theory describes the nervous system as a system of tubes in which an organism’s spirit sometimes accumulates pressure that necessitates release. Herbert Spencer, in an essay, describes human emotions as a kind of nervous energy and as the energy accumulates to a certain threshold, its released as laughter. The theory doesn’t view humor as irrational or anti-social, rather, it’s a sigh of relief. Freud, the father of psychology, suggest that most jokes and comic remarks are about hostility or sex because these are common influential urges which most individuals are forced by society to repress. Heavy laughter is commonly described by psychologists as cathartic effect, just like exercise. (Morreal, 2009)

However, this theory is not convincing. Many a times, people find humor even in absence of release of pent-up feelings. We may have laughter without any emotional attachment at all. For example, when watching a cartoon featuring ridiculous situation, we may laugh out loud without having any emotions in the first place. In relation to Freud’s idea of sexual humor, experiments by Hans Jurgen revealed that it is actually people who give free to their sexual and hostile feelings who find more humor in those aspects than those who repress them. Robert Latta’s Theory L, a more recent theory that is reminiscent of the Spencer’s and Freud’s beliefs, suggests that ‘unrelaxation’ need not to necessarily involve emotions. It is therefore clear that some humors may not be associated with emotional relaxation. (Polimeni & Reiss, 2006)

While most philosophers and psychologists criticized humor, a minority of them treasured its value, including Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle. Aristotle believed that humor provided some form of rest and break from seriousness which was essential for human beings, just like Aquinas regarded moderated humor as valuable in life. (Morreal, 2009)

In conclusion, while many theories provide many views on humor, none completely and fully describes the nature and significance of humor. What stands out is that, in the ancient times, humor was highly criticized and disapproved without any clear acceptable reason. With time, it has come to the realization that humor is not such a vice. In fact, there are health benefits associated with it.


Morreal, J. (2009). Comic Relief; A Comprehensive Philosophy of Humor. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Polimeni, J., & Reiss, P. J. (2006). The First Joke: Exploring the Evolutionary Origins of Humor. Evolutionary Psychology, 347-366.

Deadline is approaching?

Wait no more. Let us write you an essay from scratch

Receive Paper In 3 Hours
Calculate the Price
275 words
First order 15%
Total Price:
$38.07 $38.07
Calculating ellipsis
Hire an expert
This discount is valid only for orders of new customer and with the total more than 25$
This sample could have been used by your fellow student... Get your own unique essay on any topic and submit it by the deadline.

Find Out the Cost of Your Paper

Get Price