Humor is the mental faculty of discovering, expressing, or appreciating the ludicrous or absurdly incongruous.

Famed Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) considered humor an outlet for discharging pent up psychic energy and diminishing the importance of potentially damaging events. Since the 1970s, however, research on humor has shifted from a Freudian emphasis to one that focuses on its cognitive dimensions, including investigations involving information-processing theory.

Humor has been found to depend on the disparity between expectations and perceptions, generally termed incongruity. Not all incongruity, however, is humorous. For humor to be evoked, the incongruous is typically somehow meaningful or appropriate, is at least partially resolved, and is noted in a playful manner (without threat). In many cases, truth is an important component and gives the audience a new perspective on a familiar situation. For instance, a comedian may point out how silly a common occurrence is.

If issued playfully, a joke makes fun of the audience and allows the members of the audience to laugh at themselves. This is described in the benign violation theory, which indicates that humor occurs when two of the following three conditions are satisfied:

Humor may also trick the audience. For instance, a comedian may lead the audience down one line of thinking and then issue a punch line that jumps to a different line of thinking. In this case, laughter may be delayed because the audience needs a few moments to get the joke.

Research has shown the importance of humor both in social interaction and human development. Developmental psychologists consider humor a form of play characterized by the manipulation of images, symbols, and ideas. Based on this definition, humor can first be detected in infants at about 18 months of age with the acquisition of the ability to manipulate symbols. Some researchers believe that humor can be considered present in infants as young as four months old if the criterion used is the ability to perceive incongruities in a playful light and resolve them in some manner. The capacity for humor increases as cognitive development occurs over the course of childhood.

Humor serves a number of social functions. It can function as a coping strategy, it may operate to cement allegiances, or it may serve to test the status of relationships. One of the main signs of a healthy ego, for instance, is the ability to laugh at one's own foibles and mistakes. Humor can be used to lend social acceptability to forbidden feelings or attitudes, a phenomenon at least as old as the Renaissance fool or court jester who was given license to voice unpleasant truths and mock those in positions of authority.


Benign violation theory—
Used to describe humor, a hypothesis suggesting that humor is benign (nonthreatening) and a violation (or incongruous).
In humor, the disparity between expectations and perceptions.

Research has also led to the view that humor is a way of countering anxiety by reasserting mastery over a situation. Feelings of helplessness have been found to characterize both anxiety and depression. (One of the signs of depression is the inability to appreciate or use humor.) Humor gives people an opportunity to stand outside the dire aspects of a situation, however briefly, and assert a measure of control through the ability to laugh at their predicament. Research suggests that jokes about calamitous events or situations may only be humorous when the audience is separated from the situation by time, culture/social status, or geography/physical space. Comedians will typically wait a certain period of time before joking about something related to a local tragedy and will carefully consider the specific audience they are addressing. After all, what is funny to one group of people (those separated from the dire situation) is not funny to another group that is in the middle of the tragedy.



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McGraw, A. P., et al. “Too Close for Comfort, or Too Far to Care? Finding Humor in Distant Tragedies and Close Mishaps.” Psychological Science 23, no. 10 (October 2012): 1215–23.

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Gindfielder, Sadie F. “The Formula for Funny.” American Psychological Association. (accessed August 16, 2015).

Humor Research Lab, University of Colorado Boulder. “Benign Violation Theory.” (accessed August 16, 2015).

Khazan, Olga. “The Dark Psychology of Being a Better Comedian.” The Atlantic. (accessed August 16, 2015).


Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor, 220 E. State St., Fl. G, Rockford, IL, 61104, (815) 708-6587,, .

International Society for Humor Studies, Martin Lampert, Ph.D., Executive Secretary, Holy Names University, 3500 Mountain Blvd., Oakland, CA, 94619, (510) 4361532,, .