Humor psychology from Don L. F. Nilsen, Assistant Dean, Division of the Humanities ASU Emeritus CollegePresentation Transcript
Humor and Psychology
LAUGHinG & SMiLinG
by Don L. F. Nilsen
and Alleen Pace Nilsen
Emotions: Anger & Fear
Emotions: Surprise & Skepticism
Emotions: Curiosity & Longing
Emotions: Love & Sadness
Emotions: Surprise & Desire
Emotions: Narcicism & Sexy Face
What is Golum’s emotion?
Does the dental work change things?
Scholars separate modern humans from
primitive humans by giving them these
•Homo Erectus (upright human)
•Homo Sapiens (thinking human)
•Homo Ridens (laughing human)
The Id, the Super Ego, and
• “The Id is a pool for desires and drives.”
• “As society and parental influence (represented
in the super ego) do not allow the direct
expression of sexual and hostile impulses,
gratification can only be achieved in an indirect
• “Therefore, individuals repressing their sexuality
or aggression should show a preference for
sexual and aggressive jokes.” Ruch  29
Traits, States, and Behaviors
Seriousness vs. Playfulness
• TRAITS: A “serious person” wants to
function exclusively in the bona fide mode of
communication. This is not true for a
• STATES: We can be in a serious or pensive
mood, or a silly mood.
• BEHAVIORS: We can tell a joke or clown
around. Ruch  32
• Playful Mood = Cheerful, Hilarious
• Serious Mood = Earnest, Pensive,
• Bad Mood = Sadness, Melancholy,
Adapted from Ruch  34
• “While an ill-humored person, like the serious one,
may not want to be involved in humor, the person
in a sad mood may not be able to do so even if he
or she would like to.”
• “Also, while the sad person is not antagonistic to a
cheerful group, the ill-humored one may be.”
• “Bad mood might also be a disposition facilitating
certain forms of humor, such as mockery, irony,
cynicism, and sarcasm.”
Ruch  32
This warning to customers about surveillance cameras
is “softened” by the allusion to the old TV show
“Smile, You’re on Candid Camera.”
Types of Humor
• “Affiliative Humor” involves the tendency to say
funny things, to tell jokes, and to engage in
spontaneous witty banter.
• “Self-Enhancing Humor” is a coping mechanism.
• “Aggressive Humor” involves sarcasm, teasing,
ridicule, derision, put-downs or disparagement.
• “Self-Defeating Humor” is when people allow
themselves to be the butt of other people’s jokes.
Ruch  38-39
Non-Enjoyment Smiles Differ
W. Ruch (2008, p. 22) says that people smile for a
variety of reasons, for example, when they are:
•enjoying a disgusting or frightening film,
•masking negative emotions of sadness, anger, or
•feeling sadistic pleasure,
•complying to something contemptuous,
•have mixed emotions,
•feel under social pressure.
The next two slides show photos clipped
from popular magazines.
• One of them is the police mug shot of the Tucson
killer. Can you see a difference in his smile?
•Conjecture on possible reasons behind the smiles of
the various individuals.
•What emotions do you see?
Genuine Amusement Determination Bravery
Self Satisfaction Surprise Happiness
•Only one girl is laughing? What’s the difference?
W. Ruch, has described various “Humor
Styles.” Think about comedians you know. Tell
us about a comedian who fits the description
on the left vs. someone who fits into the right
Socially Warm vs.
• Robert Provine says that “Most laughter is
not a response to jokes or other formal
attempts at humor”
• Salvatore Attardo adds that laughter may be
caused by all sorts of non-humorous stimuli
including tickling, laughing gas, and
embarrassment. It can also be triggered by
watching or hearing other people laugh,
which is why sound tracks were invented to
help radio audiences get into a laughing
Laughing and Smiling Are So Important to Us That in
Our Fantasies We Ascribe Such Abilities to “Fabulous
• People also laugh when they are in social situations that
make them feel anxious, ignorant, or apologetic. It could
be a sign of false bravado by people being teased who
want to show they can “take a joke.”
• People never get the giggles, and seldom laugh, when
they are alone. We are complimenting someone on e-mail
if we tell them, “You made me laugh out loud.” In reality,
we are more likely to have smiled.
• Jodi Eisterhold has discussed the “principle of least
disruption,” which “enjoins speakers to return to a
serious mode as soon as possible.” Nevertheless, public
speakers like to make the audience laugh because it is an
invitation to “come closer” in an emotional sense.
LAUGHTER VS. SMILING
• Because smiles can sometimes evolve into laughs
and laughs can taper off into smiles, some people
think that laughter is merely a form of exaggerated
• However, smiles are more likely to express feelings
of satisfaction or good will, while laughter comes
from surprise or a recognition of an incongruity.
• Furthermore, laughter is basically a public event
while smiling is basically a private event.
• Throughout time, philosophers have made
many statements about laughter that are not
true of smiling.
• Each one has defined laughter in a different
way as shown in this chronological listing.
THOMAS HOBBES: Laughter is the sudden
glory arising from the sudden conception of
some eminency in ourselves, by comparison
with the infirmity of others. Leviathan, 1651
IMMANUEL KANT: Laughter is an affection arising
from a strained expectation being suddenly reduced to
nothing. The Critique of Judgment, 1790
WILLIAM HAZLITT: The essence of the laughable is
the incongruous, the disconnecting one idea from
another, or the jostling of one feeling against another.
Lecture on the Comic Writers, Etc. of Great Britain, 1819.
ARTHUR SCHOPENHAUER: The phenomenon
of laughter always signifies the sudden apprehension of
an incongruity between a conception and the real object.
The World as Will and Idea, 1844
Henri Bergson: Something mechanical
encrusted on the living causes laughter.
Sigmund Freud: Laughter arises from the
release of previously existing static energy.
Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, 1905
James Agee classified laughter into six
Incipient or Inner,
• THE SIMPER
• THE SMIRK
Loud and Unrestrained
• THE HOWL
• THE YOWL
• THE SHRIEK
• THE OLYMPIAN
• People who laugh from being tickled are not
necessarily put in a more receptive mood for
enjoying the humor in jokes because laughing from
being tickled occurs in a part of the brain different
from where laughter that is intellectually stimulated
• People cannot tickle themselves because the
cerebellum in the lower back of the brain somehow
sends an interfering message to the part of the brain
that controls laughter.
FINAL CONTRAST OF
LAUGHTER AND SMILING
– Anthony Chapman did a study in which he
compared the actions of a group of children who
knew they were being observed with a group who
did not know they were being observed.
– The children who knew they were being watched
laughed four times as often as did those in the other
– However, they smiled only half as much.
A PARADOXICAL CONCLUSION
• Chapman concluded that laughter can be
good or bad, depending on the situation.
• But he also concluded that humor is both the
cause for laughter, and the result of laughter.
• This is why in people’s minds, humor and
laughter are so closely associated.
Dark Psychology by “banksy”
A Rorschach Joke
“What does this
picture remind you
“And this picture?”