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Funny?
Funny?
Funny?
@PeterMcGraw & @CalebWarren
question:

 What makes things funny?
answer:

 Benign violations
Who are these guys?
Peter McGraw is an associate
professor of marketing and psychology
at the University of Colorado Boulder.
He directs the Humor Research Lab
(aka HuRL) and co-authored
The Humor Code.
Caleb Warren is an assistant
professor of marketing at Texas A&M,
where he studies what makes
things funny and what makes
things cool.
Definition
Humor is a psychological
response characterized by:

•  an emotion - amusement
•  a judgment – that is funny
•  a behavior - laughter
Rewards
Humor is:
- attractive
- pleasurable
- entertaining
"
Humor benefits: 
- relationships (Wanted:
Good Sense of Humor )
- coping
- creativity
- eases criticism
Humor can hurt people (e.g., bullying)
Failed humor attempts can create negative emotions
And Gilbert Gottfried loses his job as the Aflac duck.
Risks
Are you a nerd? Read a few of our papers: #1, #2, and #3, 

and check out the paper by Thomas Veatch that inspired us.
The Benign Violation Theory
Violations threatens a person’s well-being,
identity, or normative belief structure

They likely originated as threats to physical
well-being, but because of evolution, now
include violations of culture, language, and logic.
Violation condition
Humorists see
violations in comedy
“Comedy is a
man in trouble.” "
- Jerry Lewis
“The secret source of humor
is not joy but sorrow; there 
is no humor in heaven.”"
- Mark Twain
“Humor 
is reason
gone mad.”
- Groucho Marx
Threats to physical well-being are a nearly universal
source of humor. Even babies and non-human animals
laugh when physically threatened in a safe and playful
manner.
Physical violations
Threats to a person or a group of people’s pride,
dignity, or sense of self.
Identity violations
Thing that breaks a social or cultural norm (given
the person generally accepts the norm as valid)
“Man marries pillow”
Cultural violations
Breaking a communication or linguistic norm (e.g.,
sarcasm, unusual accents, grammar errors, etc.)
Communication violations
Anything that seems illogical or doesn’t make sense
Logic violations
In order to be humorous, a violation needs
to seem acceptable, okay, or sensible.
Benign condition
m
It is easier to see a violation as benign if there are
no harmful consequences (yet).
Benign: Harmless
m
It is easier to see a violation as benign if it happened a
long time ago, afflicts someone else, or isn’t real.
Hypothetical violation
Benign: Distance
m
It is easier to see a violation as benign if the behavior
follows another norm, custom, or rule.
More benign
Benign: Alternative norm
Less benign
m
It is easier to see a violation as benign if you personally
don’t care about the person or the norm that the
violation threatens.
More benign
(for Americans)
Benign: Commitment
Less benign
(for Americans)
In order to experience humor, people have to see both
the violation and benign interpretations simultaneously.
Simultaneity
Why this is funny
(to some people)
Punching your mom is a violation, but it is benign because
it is coming from a place of love (plus a kid wrote it).
Wrong use of “best pick up line,” but
okay because it is technically correct.
Why this is funny
(to some people)
Why this is funny
(to some people)
It’s wrong to clean your mother’s vagina, but
it’s okay because the phone said it by accident.
Is a benign violation when
done by someone you trust. 

Is purely benign when you
try to tickle yourself.

Is purely a violation when
a creepy stranger tickles you. 
Case:
Tickling
Sarcasm involves
saying one thing but
meaning the opposite,
thus violating a
common
conversational norm. 

When successful, the
person making the
comment is able to
communicate a benign
intention through other
cues like an obviously
exaggerated tone. 

Case:
Sarcasm
Slapstick creates painful
circumstances (violation) that
are not painful(benign), at
least for the observer.

The victim is not actually hurt 
(it is often just an act) or the
viewer does not care
about the victim’s
well-being (or both). 
Case:
Slapstick
Realizing that something that seems threatening is
actually okay transforms a potentially negative
experience into a positive one (akin to relief). 
Why humor is
a positive experience
Why we laugh
Laughter likely originated as a primitive form of
communication signaling that an apparent threat
is benign.
Even rats seem to “laugh”
m
Situations that fail to be funny either depict a violation
that is not benign, or depict a benign situation that has
no violation. 
Purely benign
(not funny – boring)
Purely a violation
(not funny – offensive)

How humor attempts fail
Benign violations depend on physical vulnerabilities,
identity, values, culture, language, and understanding
of logic. 
A baby farting at a fancy dinner is
normal to the baby, hilarious to
the rambunctious older brother,
and embarrassing to the mother
who wants to make a good
impression on others.
Individual &
cultural differences
“Humor is tragedy plus time.” - Mark Twain
The importance of timing
JudgedMoreHumorous(%)
Greater distance
reduces the threat of a
severe violation
helping make it a
benign violation. 

But greater distance
also removes the
threat of a mild
violation, making
it purely benign.
Time doesn’t make
everything funnier
Funnier
Same for
physical distance
Funnier
Same for
physical distance
Because violations underlie humor,
it can be used to bully and exclude people. 


 “Comedy is a man in trouble. – Jerry Lewis
The dark side of comedy
People facing great suffering, from Holocaust victims
to prisoners of war, found humor to be an important
way to cope.

Finding a way to laugh at your troubles by
transforming violations into benign violations
can help you feel better.
"Humor does not diminish the pain - it makes
the space around it get bigger.“ - Allen Klein
The coping benefits of comedy
Visit the Humor Research Lab’s
benign violation theory
page.

Watch a video - or two
- or three

Check out:
The Humor Code:
A Global Search for
What Makes Things Funny

Want to learn more?
•  Sales"
•  Social media"
•  Customer service"
•  Training"
•  Innovation"
•  Negotiations"
•  Employee engagement"
•  Change management"
Coming soon:
Applications to business
@PeterMcGraw 
 
 @CalebWarren


Thank you!
Slide design: Fermentable Sugar LLC

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What Makes Things Funny?

  • 4. @PeterMcGraw & @CalebWarren question: What makes things funny? answer: Benign violations
  • 5. Who are these guys? Peter McGraw is an associate professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Colorado Boulder. He directs the Humor Research Lab (aka HuRL) and co-authored The Humor Code. Caleb Warren is an assistant professor of marketing at Texas A&M, where he studies what makes things funny and what makes things cool.
  • 6. Definition Humor is a psychological response characterized by: •  an emotion - amusement •  a judgment – that is funny •  a behavior - laughter
  • 7. Rewards Humor is: - attractive - pleasurable - entertaining " Humor benefits: - relationships (Wanted: Good Sense of Humor ) - coping - creativity - eases criticism
  • 8. Humor can hurt people (e.g., bullying) Failed humor attempts can create negative emotions And Gilbert Gottfried loses his job as the Aflac duck. Risks
  • 9. Are you a nerd? Read a few of our papers: #1, #2, and #3, 
 and check out the paper by Thomas Veatch that inspired us. The Benign Violation Theory
  • 10. Violations threatens a person’s well-being, identity, or normative belief structure They likely originated as threats to physical well-being, but because of evolution, now include violations of culture, language, and logic. Violation condition
  • 11. Humorists see violations in comedy “Comedy is a man in trouble.” " - Jerry Lewis “The secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow; there  is no humor in heaven.”" - Mark Twain “Humor  is reason gone mad.” - Groucho Marx
  • 12. Threats to physical well-being are a nearly universal source of humor. Even babies and non-human animals laugh when physically threatened in a safe and playful manner. Physical violations
  • 13. Threats to a person or a group of people’s pride, dignity, or sense of self. Identity violations
  • 14. Thing that breaks a social or cultural norm (given the person generally accepts the norm as valid) “Man marries pillow” Cultural violations
  • 15. Breaking a communication or linguistic norm (e.g., sarcasm, unusual accents, grammar errors, etc.) Communication violations
  • 16. Anything that seems illogical or doesn’t make sense Logic violations
  • 17. In order to be humorous, a violation needs to seem acceptable, okay, or sensible. Benign condition
  • 18. m It is easier to see a violation as benign if there are no harmful consequences (yet). Benign: Harmless
  • 19. m It is easier to see a violation as benign if it happened a long time ago, afflicts someone else, or isn’t real. Hypothetical violation Benign: Distance
  • 20. m It is easier to see a violation as benign if the behavior follows another norm, custom, or rule. More benign Benign: Alternative norm Less benign
  • 21. m It is easier to see a violation as benign if you personally don’t care about the person or the norm that the violation threatens. More benign (for Americans) Benign: Commitment Less benign (for Americans)
  • 22. In order to experience humor, people have to see both the violation and benign interpretations simultaneously. Simultaneity
  • 23. Why this is funny (to some people) Punching your mom is a violation, but it is benign because it is coming from a place of love (plus a kid wrote it).
  • 24. Wrong use of “best pick up line,” but okay because it is technically correct. Why this is funny (to some people)
  • 25. Why this is funny (to some people) It’s wrong to clean your mother’s vagina, but it’s okay because the phone said it by accident.
  • 26. Is a benign violation when done by someone you trust. Is purely benign when you try to tickle yourself. Is purely a violation when a creepy stranger tickles you. Case: Tickling
  • 27. Sarcasm involves saying one thing but meaning the opposite, thus violating a common conversational norm. When successful, the person making the comment is able to communicate a benign intention through other cues like an obviously exaggerated tone. Case: Sarcasm
  • 28. Slapstick creates painful circumstances (violation) that are not painful(benign), at least for the observer. The victim is not actually hurt (it is often just an act) or the viewer does not care about the victim’s well-being (or both). Case: Slapstick
  • 29. Realizing that something that seems threatening is actually okay transforms a potentially negative experience into a positive one (akin to relief). Why humor is a positive experience
  • 30. Why we laugh Laughter likely originated as a primitive form of communication signaling that an apparent threat is benign.
  • 31. Even rats seem to “laugh”
  • 32. m Situations that fail to be funny either depict a violation that is not benign, or depict a benign situation that has no violation. Purely benign (not funny – boring) Purely a violation (not funny – offensive) How humor attempts fail
  • 33. Benign violations depend on physical vulnerabilities, identity, values, culture, language, and understanding of logic. A baby farting at a fancy dinner is normal to the baby, hilarious to the rambunctious older brother, and embarrassing to the mother who wants to make a good impression on others. Individual & cultural differences
  • 34. “Humor is tragedy plus time.” - Mark Twain The importance of timing
  • 35. JudgedMoreHumorous(%) Greater distance reduces the threat of a severe violation helping make it a benign violation. But greater distance also removes the threat of a mild violation, making it purely benign. Time doesn’t make everything funnier
  • 38. Because violations underlie humor, it can be used to bully and exclude people. “Comedy is a man in trouble. – Jerry Lewis The dark side of comedy
  • 39. People facing great suffering, from Holocaust victims to prisoners of war, found humor to be an important way to cope. Finding a way to laugh at your troubles by transforming violations into benign violations can help you feel better. "Humor does not diminish the pain - it makes the space around it get bigger.“ - Allen Klein The coping benefits of comedy
  • 40. Visit the Humor Research Lab’s benign violation theory page. Watch a video - or two - or three Check out: The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny Want to learn more?
  • 41. •  Sales" •  Social media" •  Customer service" •  Training" •  Innovation" •  Negotiations" •  Employee engagement" •  Change management" Coming soon: Applications to business
  • 42. @PeterMcGraw @CalebWarren Thank you! Slide design: Fermentable Sugar LLC