Benign Violations: Making Immoral Behavior Funny

A. Peter McGraw, Caleb Warren

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

276 Scopus citations


Humor is an important, ubiquitous phenomenon; however, seemingly disparate conditions seem to facilitate humor. We integrate these conditions by suggesting that laughter and amusement result from violations that are simultaneously seen as benign. We investigated three conditions that make a violation benign and thus humorous: (a) the presence of an alternative norm suggesting that the situation is acceptable, (b) weak commitment to the violated norm, and (c) psychological distance from the violation. We tested the benign-violation hypothesis in the domain of moral psychology, where there is a strong documented association between moral violations and negative emotions, particularly disgust. Five experimental studies show that benign moral violations tend to elicit laughter and amusement in addition to disgust. Furthermore, seeing a violation as both wrong and not wrong mediates behavioral displays of humor. Our account is consistent with evolutionary accounts of laughter, explains humor across many domains, and suggests that humor can accompany negative emotion.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1141-1149
Number of pages9
JournalPsychological Science
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • disgust
  • emotion
  • humor
  • laughter
  • mixed emotions
  • moral judgment
  • moral violations

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology(all)


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