Thursday, September 20, 2012

Humor Theories

It is difficult to explain what is meant by the concept of "humor" for a friend who does not have a "sense of humor". Nevertheless, this is exactly what I'm proposing to do in this post. The act is similar in effect to one that would attempt to explain the color red to an alien who does not see color. You can define the wavelengths associated within the spectrum of light; you can explain the concepts with which red is generally associated - danger, passion, love, anger, communism; or you can discuss the prevailing theories that try to account for the existence of red. Similarily, explaining humor, like all human experiences, seems to be, at times, unexplainable, except for its relationships to something else. For the purpose of this post, I'll merely review the existing Theories of Humor and add one of my own (naturally) to the list.


The Relief Theory of Humor describes how humor arises between tension and release. This theory does not define humor, per se, it instead discusses the essential structures and psychological processes that result in laughter. 

Herbert Spencer and Sigmund Freud are the most prominent relief theorists. In a nutshell, the relief theory of humor develops due to the release of stored or excess energy or tension, resulting in laughter. 

Spencer, in The Physiology of Laughter (1860) described his "hydraulic" theory of nervous energy, explaining that excitement and mental agitation produces energy that "must expend itself". He argued that "nervous excitation always tends to beget muscular motion", with laughter being the form of physical movement. 

Freud, in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905), essentially restated Spencer's theory with the addition of a new process. He described three different sources of laughter - joking, the comic, and humor - energy from which is discharged through laughter. In joking, the positive energy released in laughter is one that had originated as a result of repressed primitive feelings. For the comic, the energy released in laughter is that which originated from the conflicts of cognitive or intellectual challenges. Whereas humor involved the saving of emotional energy for a future moment.  


In general, the Superiority Theory of Humor states that a person laughs about the misfortunes of others (schadenfreude). "Laughing at" someone else's misfortunes asserts the person's superiority over others. While these theories have been associated with Plato and Aristotle, neither made clear claims about the essence of humor. 

Plato, in Philebus, argued that ignorance was a misfortune that when found in the weak was considered ridiculous (therefore causing us to laugh). While views on humor changed slightly between the times of Plato and his student, Aristotle, the few comments Aristotle did make about humor (Poetics), corroborate Plato's view.  

It was Thomas Hobbes who developed the most well known version of the theory stating that "the passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly" (Human Nature, ch. 8). 

The opposite of the Superiority Theory comes from Robert Solomon. In Solomon's Inferiority Theory of Humor, he describes humor as a source of virtuous modesty and compassion. Solomon explains that superiority is not a necessary condition of humor. Further supporting this theory is Francis Hutchenson, who points out that we can feel superior to many things (animals, trees, etc.) without feeling amused. 


The Incongruity Theory of Humor states that humor is perceived at the moment of realization of an incongruity between distinct concepts. In general, this theory arises between a realization and its resolution. It is the most common theory of humor given that it seems to account for the majority of concepts that are perceived as "funny". 

Aristotle, in Rhetoric (III, 2) explained that the best way to get an audience to laugh was to setup an expectation and deliver something different "that gives a twist." While the word "twist" might make one think of "surprise" (René Decartes, Suprise Theory of Humor) Aristotle's condition for this experience included a resolution that had to "fit the facts," which fits with the basic premise of realization and resolution, a term that is often used to describe this theory. 

Immanuel Kant, in Critique of Judgment, provided us with a clearer explanation of the role of incongruity in humor stating: "In everything that is to excite a lively laugh there must be something absurd. Laughter is an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing" (I, I, 54). 

Francis Hutchenson, in Thoughts on Laughter (1725) stated that a key concept in the theory was that laughter was a response to the perception of incongruity. Arthur Schopenhauer said that the perceived incongruity was between a concept and a real object that it represented. Hegel more or less said the same thing, except that for him the concept was an "appearance"; laughter then resulted from an negation of that appearance. 

The most famous theory of incongruity belongs to Immanuel Kant, who claimed that the comic is an expectation that comes to nothing. John Morreall claims that humorous amusement takes place between simultaneous juxtapositions, while Robert Latta focuses on humor arising as a result of a cognitive shift created by the sudden solution to a problem. Brian Boyd explains that the "shift" is from seriousness to play, essentially, a twist in perspective. Koestler, in his 1964 book, The Act of Creation, describes bisociation (the shift that results from structure mapping) and how we create novel meanings from two different frames of reference colliding with one another. Essentially, in the structure of a joke, the audience is expecting a certain outcome compatible with a particular matrix (e.g., the narrative storyline); a punchline is delivered, replacing the original matrix with an alternative humorous effect. Archimedes defined this effect nicely with the word: Eureka! 


Victor Raskin proposed The General Theory of Verbal Humor (GTVH) and Salvatore Attardo extended it. This model of linguistic humor describes a semantic model capable of expressing incongruities between semantic scripts in verbal humor. Raskin's theory was a significant departure from the traditional taxonomic approach to puns and humor, arguing that the central aspect of humor was semantic. He included pragmatics, pre-empting claims that his theory was purely semantic. Basically, Raskin's theory includes two claims: (1) each joke is interpretable according to two distinct scripts that overlap, and (2) the scripts (in the joke) are opposed (see Attardo, 1997). 

This theory of humor only makes claims about jokes and is related to the incongruity theory. Attardo and Raskin expanded Raskin's original Semantic-Script Theory of Humor (SSTH) into the GTVH by including six new knowledge resources. 


Arthur Suslov, in 1992, described The Computer Model of a Sense of Humor Theory in which timing was added to an ambiguity (incongruity-resolution theory). In this theory, humor develops as a biological function as we quicken the transmission of processed information into consciousness. According to this theory, humor has a purely biological origin, with social functions arising later. The humorous effect of this theory arises from a specific malfunction in the course of information processing due to the need to delete old data previously transmitted into consciousness. 


The Ontic-Epistemic Theory of Humor (OETC), as presented by Peter Mareinson in On the Problem of the Comic describes how normal human cognition is subjective and anthropomorphic, which basically means we perceive externally what we experience internally. In high school, I submitted a paper stating: "Our perception of others does not determine who they are, it merely represents ourselves in a period of growth." 

Mareinson's theory is one where humor arises from the differences in how we filter, select and simplify information or facts. The theory explains how humans blend together normative immaterial precepts, such as social identify, and noological factual percepts, in order to live by the assumption that they are real. Humor arises from our perception of not being real. This "relativisation" serves as a reboot of sorts in the faculty of social perception. 


Alastair Clarke, in The Faculty of Adaptability: Humour's Contribution to Human Ingenuity, describes his theory as an evolutionary and cognitive explanation of how and why any individual finds anything funny. 

Essentially, humor arises when the brain recognizes patterns that surprise it; the recognition which results in a humorous response, is "broadcast as laughter". 


Geoffrey Miller, in From sexual cues to cognitive adaptations, posited that humor arose as a cognitive adaptation in mate selection. Psychological traits such as intelligence, creativity, personality, sense of humor, social skills, kindness, and ideology, though not as extensively studied as other morphological traits, relate to mate choice. 


Hurley, Dennett, and Adams, in Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind (2011), proposed that humor evolved due to the brain's search for mistakes in active belief structures, i.e., the detection of mistaken reasoning. As with Miller's Mate Selection Theory of Humor, humor is described as an important survival trait: the ability to detect mistaken reasoning. Accordingly, humor allows the brain to excel at problem solving, enhancing the neural circuitry needed for survival. 


Zillmann & Bryant (1980), in their Misattribution Theory of Tendentious Humor, described the phenomenon related to an audience's inability to identify exactly why they find a joke funny. Published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, they expounded upon Freud's (1905) Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious, in that Freud declared people incapable of knowing exactly what it was that they found amusing due to the complex nature of their conscious and subconscious minds. In this sense, comedians, whose job it is to make others laugh, are mostly unaware of what mechanisms cause others to laugh, which is why many jokes fall flat (often to the surprise of the comedian).

George Eman Vaillant's categorization of defense mechanisms, in his (1977) Adaptation to Life, described humor as something arising as a mature defense mechanism. Basically, defense mechanisms are categorized according to their properties (i.e., underlying mechanisms, similarities or connections with personality). The categories being: (1) Pathological, (2) Immature, (3) Neurotic, (4) Mature (humor is ascribed to maturity and found among emotionally healthy adults, despite their origins in the immature stage of development. Over the years, mature defense mechanisms are adapted in order to optimize success in life and relationships. The uses of these defenses enhances pleasure and feelings of control. Humor, in this sense, helps us to integrate conflicting emotions and thoughts, whilst remaining effective. People who use these mechanisms, according to Vaillant, are usually considered virtuous. While humor retains a portion of its innate distress (ideas that are unpleasant to focus on or discuss), skirting around them via witticisms, for example, bring pleasure to others. 


Inspired by René Thom's Catastrophe Theory, which mathematically describes the topological structures of curves or vector fields in dynamical systems, Laughing's Punchline Theory of Humor describes how the rise and fall of a joke can be measured topologically. 

Essentially, at any given time a dynamical system has a state given by a set of real numbers (a vector) that can be represented by a point in a geometrical topological space (on a small enough scale it looks like a Euclidean space of a specific dimension), whereas a line and a circle (the structures that make up a Stick Figure) represent a one-dimensional manifold, and so on into high-dimensional space. 

Small changes cause equilibria or energie to appear or disappear, or to change from attracting to repelling and visa versa, leading to large and sudden changes in the behavior of the system. 

Visually speaking, a cusp shape (shown below the joke) represents the topographical energie inherent in a classic one-two punch joke: 

Sven and Ole, popular in the upper midwest (Minnesota) and other regions settled by Scandanavians, were about a couple of farmers who weren't "too bright". If you're Swedish, Sven and Ole are Norwegian. If you're Norwegian...Sven and Ole are Swedish. 


With only a few hours to live, Ole, lying in bed, smells something. Cake. Chocolate cake, his favorite! He crawls out of bed and drags himself to the kitchen. 

When Lena walks in, there is Ole, sitting at the kitchen table eating cake. She hollers at him, "Ole! What are you doing in here? You're sick! You should be in bed! You shouldn't be out here eating cake. That's for the funeral!" 

A one-two punch type of joke is depicted in the above cusp shape (an abusive Ad hominem logical fallacy has a similar shape). The two different concepts can be followed in the topographical pattern: (1) Ole shouldn't be out of bed because he's sick vs. (2) Ole shouldn't eat his favorite chocolate cake because this one was made specifically for the guests who attend his pending funeral. 

Similar in theory to John Morreall (humorous amusement takes place between simultaneous juxtapositions), Robert Latta (humor arises as a result of a cognitive shift created by the sudden solution to a problem), and Brian Boyd's (humor arises from the "shift" from seriousness to play) theories of humor, the sudden and abrupt one-two punch type of joke (as well as all other types of jokes) can be depicted topographically. Metaphysically speaking, the ambiguity results in a break of energie pattern (or logic), which is then interpreted as humorous. 

John Allen Paulos relates Thom's Catastrophe Theory Model to jokes and humor in the 5th chapter of his book, Mathematics and Humor. Paulos' work is highly intuitive and was described by Laughing as "a beautiful byproduct of theoretical mathematics". 

Measuring jokes for their discontinuities (jumps, switches, reversals) allows us to visually map the structure (or logical fallacy) presented in the joke. Future work might include depicting data and information in topological lines of energie movement (revealing instantly their categories; whereby we'd search the internet for symbols rather than words), but that day is probably well into the future. Recognizably, revealing a joke's topographical pattern is akin to premature punchlineation, whereby a punchline is given before the setup of the joke has occurred. 

Laughing further explains: "Whether or not you visualize words or energie like the topological models above, you probably feel the "sting" of these patterns in the presence of a negatively targeted or crude joke whereas the softness of a joke (as represented in the curves below) would result in a humorous reaction to a non-offensive joke. For example:

Change is inevitable, 
except from a vending machine. 

E.C. Zeeman related the catastrophe model to aggressive behavior in animals (dogs) as depending largely upon two factors: fear and rage. These models, when superimposed onto jokes, reveal the energie that comes from the intent of a joke. While the catastrophe theory is highly complex, when plotten out on a three-dimensional scale, it is more easily visualized in terms of the joke path. 

John Allen Paulos stated that "most simple jokes fit reasonably well into the model." (Mathematics and Humor, 1980). Continuing along the ass-umption that the rise and fall of a joke could easily be measured topologically... 

we can see how a joke can be plotted on a three-dimensional (3D) scale, with small changes in intent causing energie to appear or disappear, accordingly. In theory, you can visualize the energie of a joke by its shape. 

For example, a classic pun: 

One day at the bar there was a blackout.
Good thing I had a light beer. 

In this joke, the pun rises softly to a neutral energetic zone, then softly falls into the punchline. The apex (differentiating point between two distinct energies) of the joke occurs in the middle. 

For example, a self-deprecating or self-effacing joke:

Nostalgia isn't what it used to be. 


87.5% of all statistics are made up.

The apex of the joke occurs toward the beginning of the joke. 

For example, an offensive joke:

Think of how stupid the average person is, 
and then realize half of them are stupider than that. (George Carlin)

The energie of George Carlin's joke peaks towards the end of the joke, where the so-called "zinger" takes place. 

With respect to passive-aggressive jokes, the energie starts out similar to the self-deprecating pattern, softens slightly, then returns in full force (the "zinger"). 

Like everything in the material universe, jokes exist in a 3-D space. They jump, switch, and reverse mirroring physical intentions (conscious or unconscious). Essentially, according to Laughing, this means that jokes can be visually plotted on three-dimensional scales making them transparent, instantly revealing which humor theory under which they can be categorized (be that incongruity, release, pattern recognition, superiority, misattribution, etc.). 

Visually depicting jokes offers us an opportunity to bring jokes back into focus, away from the opaque vagueness inherent in language and natural language processing. 

The Punchline Theory of Humor describes how the rise and fall of a joke can be measured topologically. This promotes visual transparency with respect to the joke's structure (humor device or theory utilized, setup, and punchline), something Laughing describes as essential in politically and socially responsible joking. 

For more information on general theories of humor, see Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP). 

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