It may seem like it removes the funny ha-ha part of humour to talk about why we laugh, but there is a good reason to take a closer look: writers consider and work within set expectations and societal bounds to create commentary and upend what we, as readers, anticipate. Awareness of these theories allows us to better understand how humour is being used in written works we read. Check out these couple of theories as to why we laugh when we do!
The Superiority Theory
Laugher with an edge. Superiority Theory believes that humour is based on a feeling that one person is better or above another. Laughter is brought on my comparison with your own belief that you are superior to the subject of the joke or situation. This theory creates a pecking order of those laughing and those being laughed at—a division that can reinforce racial and religious divides, misogyny, ableism, etc. This may explain why so many of us have anxiety around being laughed at; being the butt of a joke seems to make us less than in the eyes of others. However, some scholars believe that if one sees themselves in the joke—for example, the actions of a drunk or bad driver—it can cause the individual to reflect on their own short comings and lead to personal improvement.
The Incongruity Theory
By definition, “incongruous” means a demonstration of something out of harmony with its surroundings. So, to the idea of humour based on incongruity is like trying to put two puzzle pieces together that don’t fit, but it is the juxtaposition that makes us laugh. Our brain sets expectations based on our past experiences, lessons learnt, and societal expectations. This means that when someone is telling a joke and the punchline flips the meaning of story, we are surprised and laugh at the turnabout: “some thing or event we perceive or think about violates our normal mental patterns and normal expectations” (Morreall 11). However, there is an aspect of cleverness that applies to this theory: putting peanut butter on a hamburger may be incongruous, but it isn’t laughter-inducing.
The Relief Theory
It will come as no surprise that the primary development of the Relief Theory stems from Freud: that by laughing we release (create relief from) oppressive feelings of aggression and sexual urges. While this may be a bit to specific (although we tend to laugh at dirty jokes), the Relief Theory ‘works’ in a similar way to how we think about violent movies or video games providing a release from society’s constraints, it is a controlled opening of a pressure valve.