Here are the Three Types of Humour and How They Help You Be More Social

By Loni Klara

“If you find it hard to laugh at yourself, I would be happy to do it for you.” – Groucho Marx

The weather outside is frightful, but the scent of coffee is so delightful. You’re at your favorite café, exchanging a few words with the barista about the dreadful weather. Look at those people freezing outside waiting for the bus! You shake your heads and smile, knowing you’re safe and sound, unlike those poor souls.

You may not think this moment is particularly hilarious. But even in this tiny example of everyday interaction, we can see how humour plays a huge role in social engagement. Some experts might call this an example of the “superiority theory.”

The 3 Theories of Humour

Philosophers from Plato to Descartes have shared their thoughts on the role of humour over the centuries. They can primarily divided into these three theories:

  • Superiority Theory
  • Relief Theory
  • Incongruity Theory
Superiority Theory

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes the superiority theory like this: “Simply put, our laughter expresses feelings of superiority over other people or over a former state of ourselves.”

By comparing the state of the people out in the cold where you also were just a moment ago, you’re implying a level of superiority in your statement and subsequent laughter. But more importantly, you are sharing this feeling of superiority with your barista, thus creating a sense of connection between you two.

Humans do this all the time with a single word that conjures up common stereotypes and connotations about a large group of people.

“The French.”

“Oh, Republicans.”

“Snowflakes.”

“Actors.”

One word is sometimes enough to get a room full of people to shake their heads and laugh at what they deem to be strange, funny or inappropriate behavior from a specific group of people. The implied message? “They’re the weird ones, not us.”

Stand-up comics use this device to build entire routines around the particular group. It can be anything from “white people” to “people who don’t put down the toilet seat,” etc. Physical humour such as slapstick which causes the audience to laugh at another’s pain or embarrassment is another example of humour based on superiority.

You’re not laughing with them, you’re laughing at them.

Of course, taken too far, “superior” humour can have an alienating effect rather than forming connections between strangers. However, given that we operate within reasonable boundaries, it’s still a tool to create a sense of mutual understanding.

Relief Theory

Have you ever laughed at an inappropriate moment because you were nervous? Or burst into mutual laughter when someone said something shocking that’s normally not said in polite society?

The relief theory humour has a rather interesting origin dating to the 1700s, in Lord Shaftesbury’s work, An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humor. He states that humor is the result of natural “animal spirits” that reside within our nerves in the form of gases and liquids. He also believed that these “spirits” would burst out in unpredictable forms such as laughter if repressed.

While we’ve evolved from this unique understanding of how our nerves work, we’re still familiar with the concept that laughter releases pent-up energy. Our modern day version of this includes the new genre of “dramedy,” which is a piece of drama that also infuses elements of comedy in moments of tension.

The Netflix show Orange is the New Black is a prime example of this genre, mixing a very serious subject matter – women in prison – with highly comical dialogue and situations.

Comedians often tell jokes about socially taboo subjects and in doing so, signal everyone else that it’s okay to laugh about things that make people uncomfortable and tense — issues as big as racism and gender inequality to topics like farts and sex.

Socially speaking, laughing in relief has the effect of dissolving all tensions both within you and the other person, paving the path towards an intense moment of bonding.

Incongruity Theory

Let’s go back to the Groucho Marx quote for a moment:

“If you find it hard to laugh at yourself, I would be happy to do it for you.” – Groucho Marx

This is one example of the incongruity theory of humour. We laugh at the unexpected. Comedians and their punch lines. Surprising twists in plots. Someone behaves in a way that’s not the norm, e.g. a character always says exactly what they think although most people would lie in their shoes.

Again originating in the 1700s (the Age of Reason), this concept was first expressed in Francis Hutcheson’s Thoughts on Laughter. Later, Kant famously expanded on the theory like this:

“Laughter is an emotion that arises from a strained expectation suddenly reduced to nothing.” – The Critique of Judgment (1790)

In the era of silent films, Charlie Chaplin and slapstick comedy was the major appeal for audiences. However, today’s comedians rely much more on incongruity to craft their jokes and punchlines to land a laugh.

This type of humour requires a lot more thought. We regard witty people as smart and hold them in high regard. From people like Groucho Marx who can quip like no other to writers like Dorothy Parker, our culture is full of icons of witticisms.

When you can turn around a situation in a way that’s funny and unexpected, people instantly respond. In some ways, you can even gain their respect.

Scientific Benefits of Laughter

In a 2017 study by Oxford University and Aalto University, researchers determined that social laughter boosts the release of endorphins in the brain, helping us form bonds with others and even spread the pleasurable feelings afar.

Since laughter is contagious, the endorphin effect can reach a large group of people even in a short amount of time.

The idea that laughter is one of the best ways to make friends and form new relationships was also confirmed in a research published in Human Nature. This is because in moments of laughter, people’s guards come down and they are more willing to share personal information.

Interestingly, the research also revealed that we’re not always aware that our guards are down, even though it’s clear to those who are observing us.

It turns out that humour can subconsciously turn us into more sociable creatures.

Humour can turn awkward situations into a moment of comedy, transform strangers into friends, and even help us gain love and respect from others.

This wonderful effect comes from the fact that when we laugh, we release endorphins, experience pleasurable feelings and spread this effect to others. We become much more open, social and intimate with one another.

If you’re looking for ways to get out there and socialize more, find ways to spot the humour in situations and make yourself laugh. It’s the quickest way to bond and have a good time.

CREDITS:

Writer: Loni Klara is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. You can see more of her work at loniklara.contently.com.

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