Differentiating what is humorous from what is not

Caleb Warren, A. Peter McGraw

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

66 Scopus citations

Abstract

After 2.5 millennia of philosophical deliberation and psychological experimentation, most scholars have concluded that humor arises from incongruity. We highlight 2 limitations of incongruity theories of humor. First, incongruity is not consistently defined. The literature describes incongruity in at least 4 ways: surprise, juxtaposition, atypicality, and a violation. Second, regardless of definition, incongruity alone does not adequately differentiate humorous from nonhumorous experiences. We suggest revising incongruity theory by proposing that humor arises from a benign violation: something that threatens a person's well-being, identity, or normative belief structure but that simultaneously seems okay. Six studies, which use entertainment, consumer products, and social interaction as stimuli, reveal that the benign violation hypothesis better differentiates humorous from nonhumorous experiences than common conceptualizations of incongruity. A benign violation conceptualization of humor improves accuracy by reducing the likelihood that joyous, amazing, and tragic situations are inaccurately predicted to be humorous.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)407-430
Number of pages24
JournalJournal of Personality and Social Psychology
Volume110
Issue number3
DOIs
StatePublished - Mar 1 2016
Externally publishedYes

Keywords

  • Emotion
  • Humor
  • Incongruity
  • Laughter
  • Positive psychology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science

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