[Paleopsych] Economist: Theories of humour: Poking fun

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Sat Aug 6 01:27:43 UTC 2005

Theories of humour: Poking fun


    THE true story of how your wife's stalker rang her to discuss killing
    you isn't supposed to provoke mirth. But when John Morreall, of the
    College of William and Mary in Virginia, related the events last week
    to a group of scholars in Tuebingen in Germany, they were in stitches
    as he divulged the details of how his wife tried to dissuade the
    confused young man by pleading that her mortgage was too large to pay
    without her husband's help.

    So why did they laugh? Dr Morreall's thesis is that laughter,
    incapacitating as it can be, is a convincing signal that the danger
    has passed. The reaction of the psychologists, linguists, philosophers
    and professional clowns attending the Fifth International Summer
    School on Humour and Laughter illustrates his point. Dr Morreall
    survived to tell the tale and so had an easy time making it sound

    One description of how laughter is provoked is the incongruity theory
    developed by Victor Raskin of Purdue University and Salvatore Attardo
    of Youngstown State University, both in America. This theory says that
    all written jokes and many other humorous situations are based on an
    incongruity--something that is not quite right. In many jokes, the
    teller sets up the story with this incongruity present and the punch
    line then resolves it, in a way people do not expect. Alternatively,
    the very last words of the story may introduce the absurdity and leave
    the listeners with the task of reconciling it. For instance, many
    people find it funny that a conference on humour could take place in

    Why do people laugh at all? What is the point of it? Laughter is very
    contagious and this suggests that it may have become a part of human
    behaviour because it promotes social bonding. When a group of people
    laughs, the message seems to be "relax, you are among friends".

    Indeed, humour is one way of dealing with the fact that humans are
    "excrement-producing poets and imperfect lovers", says Appletree
    Rodden of the University of Tuebingen. He sees religion and humour as
    different, and perhaps competing, ways for people to accept death and
    the general unsatisfactoriness of the world. Perhaps that is why, as
    Dr Morreall calculates in a forthcoming article in the journal Humor,
    95% of the writings that he sampled from important Christian scholars
    through the centuries disapproved of humour, linking it to insincerity
    and idleness.

    Fear of idleness is why many managers discourage laughter during
    office hours, Dr Morreall notes. This is foolish, he claims. Laughter
    or its absence may be the best clue a manager has about the work
    environment and the mood of employees.

    Indeed, another theory of why people laugh--the superiority
    theory--says that people laugh to assert that they are on a level
    equal to or higher than those around them. Research has shown that
    bosses tend to crack more jokes than do their employees. Women laugh
    much more in the presence of men, and men generally tell more jokes in
    the presence of women. Men have even been shown to laugh much more
    quietly around women, while laughing louder when in a group of men.

    But laughter does not unite us all. There are those who have a
    pathological fear that others will laugh at them. Sufferers avoid
    situations where there will be laughter, which means most places where
    people meet. Willibald Ruch of Zurich University surveyed 1,000
    Germans and asked them whether they thought they were the butts of
    jokes and found that almost 10% felt this way. These people also
    tended to classify taped laughter as jeering. Future research will
    focus on the hypothesis that there is something seriously wrong with
    their sense of humour.

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