1: Introduction to the Psychology of Humor
Humor is a familiar phenomenon that most people experience daily, but which is difficult to understand or explain. Things strike us as funny "just because" and the reason is seldom considered. It's a pleasant and passing sensation that is very seldom problematic, and generally pleasant.
It can be observed that most psychologists can't explain why we find something to be funny, how humor is processed in the brain, why we laugh, and why humor is enjoyable. This is largely because psychologists have not attempted to understand humor in a serious and systematic manner.
That is not to say the topic has been altogether ignored - but it has been superficial and fragmented, and the purpose of this book is to remedy that. Piecing these fragments together, the author has found there to be a sizable body of knowledge, but one with many gaps and inconsistencies.
The University of Humor and Laughter
Sociologists have observed humor and laughter in all cultures throughout the world - tough it is noted that cultures have their dissimilar norms considering when laughter and humor are appropriate.
From a developmental perspective, laughter is one of the first social vocalizations emitted by human infants, and is just as universal as crying. The physical mechanisms for laughter are present from birth, and even mute children have been reported to laugh. Neurologists have identified specialized brain circuits for laughter. It is, in sum, "an essential part of what it means to be human."
However, laughter is not exclusively human, as it has been noted in other species of primate - though it is not as developed as it is in humans, and does not always correspond to mirth per se, there is evidence that human laughter has evolutionary roots in the laughter of apes.
It's further noted that chimpanzees and gorillas even have some primitive versions of humor, which is plainly evident in the way in which apes who are taught sign language use puns, humorous insults, and intentional incongruities and to use them in a context of play.
It is often in the very same nature of play that human beings use humor, and more often than primates. While people generally do not chase or tickle one another in public, adult humans use humor to engage in frequent social play - and humor may have replaced the rough-and-tumble methods of play that are evident in primates.
Aside of frivolous play, humor also severs as a method for socialization: to share a laugh with friends, to demonstrate contempt for enemies, to support proper behavior, and to discourage improper behavior. Humor is a universal mode of communication with a variety of functions in society.
What is Humor?
The author turns to layman's dictionaries, whose definitions of humor are wholly unsatisfactory: humor is anything that causes amusement or mirth.
It's implied that the amusement is the intent of a creator (through action, speech, illustration, or writing a person means to provoke amusement in others) - and while amusement may result from unintentional actions, or arise solely in the mind of the person who experiences it, this is not "humor" but a person's individual and internal "sense of humor" that enables them to amuse themselves.
The author defines four components of humor, which he will explore in greater detail:
- A social context in which there is ...
- A cognitive and perceptual process that results in ...
- An emotional response that leads to ...
- Vocal and behavioral expression
(EN: Reading ahead, I have the sense that the author has not fully disentangled humor from amusement, but he seems to be trying his best to do so.)
The Social Context
Humor is essentially a social phenomenon - a transaction in which one person attempts to evoke an emotion in others, whose reaction rewards the actor. We give and receive the pleasure of amusement mostly in a social context.
That's not to say that people do not laugh on their own - when remembering or imagining something that gives us amusement - but the author reckons this is still a "pseudo-social" behavior, particularly when we are consuming entertainment media that were created by others - the author of a book, the illustrator of a comic, or the producer of a movie are extending humor over space and time.
(EN: Accepted, but evoking amusement in our absence likely misses some of the social incentives for offering humor, nor does it account for self-amusement of a person in isolation, or in situations where they do not share the experience with others who are present. I don't expect this disqualifies the author's interpretation, but it does suggest that he is missing the broader scope and some of its implications.)
Humor arises in a broad array of social situations: among strangers and friends alike, among large groups as well as pairs of people, in public and in private.
The essential social component of humor is "play" - the mutual experience of positive emotions, whether done for its own sake or to mitigate negative emotions.
These cognitive and emotional aspects make humor a distinctly human quality. For other species, play is more physical in nature, and is less pronounced in adulthood and maturity (lesser species play frequently as juveniles but very infrequently as adults, whereas humans engage in play throughout all stages of life).
The notion of play, in turn, is activity whose sole purpose is pleasure: the act of play does not produce anything except immediate emotional stimulation, and play activities are done for their own sake. In leisure settings, play can continue for several hours at a stretch, and in even serious settings play can be used as a brief interruption to more serious matters.
(EN: I recall reading a case for play as being serious business, which made a great deal of sense. "Serious" matters as well as functional ones are undertaken to produce an emotional benefit that is more remote in space and time - they are still self-gratification, just with a delayed fuse.)
Cognitive and Perceptual Processes
To experience humor, a person needs to mentally process sensory information, access memory, and recognize meanings and patterns. Producing humor is somewhat more complex because it involves creative thought to produce an original work of comedy (as opposed to repeating or relating something that they did not create).
Humor is entirely conceptual, based in reality but often altering or departing from it. It is in that way a form of artistic creation, and an expression of imaginary concepts that are often communicated metaphorically rather than literally. Particularly when it comes to wordplay, humor requires a flexible and adaptable understanding of knowledge.
Other theories maintain that humor resides in the realm of allegory and paradox, to see a deeper meaning to things and to grasp that there may be multiple interpretations of ideas and perceptions. Some forms of humor capitalize on representation or uncertainty, melding real with unreal, important with trivial, or threatening with safe.
Emotion is not merely intellectual, as its expression and perception "invariably" evoke a pleasant emotion response as well, and have a positive effect on mood. Imaging research (Mobbs 2003) also demonstrates that experiencing humor triggers a response in the limbic system of the brain, and the funnier that a subject claims to find a cartoon is reflected in greater brain activity. It triggers chemical activity in the same parts of the brain as eating, listening to music, and sexual activity - which, in the same way, give people incentive to seek out humor as an emotional experience.
Because of its physiological and psychological properties, the result of experiencing humor is characterized as an emotions, though neither scholars nor laymen have given a name to it - as they have done with joy, love, excitement, etc. Because the emotion is closely correlated with laughter, the experience of humor is often schematized as a component of that physical response. Terms such as "amusement" or "appreciation" do not precisely or adequately describe the "emotion that arises in response to humor."
The author proposes the term "mirth," as this is often defined as the mental experience that is manifested in jest and merriment - and he intends to use that term in spite of arguments that have been made that it is something distinct.
Like other emotions, mirth varies in duration and intensity, and is associated to distinct electrical and neurochemical activity in the brain which, in turn, has further effects on the various parts of the body. While there have in recent years been suggestions that mirth has potential health benefits, the author feels the emotion is not sufficiently understood to accept the connection as fact.
It is only in recent years that psychology has identified mirth as an emotional process - in the past, it was viewed as primarily if not exclusively cognitive. As such, there is much speculation and debate on the topic, an it may be some time for the profession to develop a sufficient understanding of the emotion.
Laughter as a Behavioral Expression of Mirth
Each emotion has an expressive component, and the chief expressions of mirth are smiling and laughter. This can vary from a faint smile, to a broad grin, to an audible chuckle, to gales of laughter as the emotional intensity increases. At extremely high levels of stimulation, humor is expressed by loud laughter, reddening of the face, throwing back the head, rocking the body, and so on.
These behaviors are demonstrative of a person's internal state, and so laughter is considered a social expression. If there were no other people present to witness the behavior, it would not be necessary - but because it is communicative, it follows that laughter cab be distinctive and audible.
Turning to the animal kingdom, laughter in apes is often accompanies by a characteristic facial expression called the "play face." This has led many theorists to reckon that laughter is a signal to others that one is engaging in play, which is of particular importance when the activities of play, such as chasing and physical contact, are often accompanied by the play-face - so that the recipient recognizes that the behavior should not be taken for an attack. Among humans, laughter is likewise a signal of friendliness and playful intent.
This theory also explains the "social laugh," the manner in which people are inclined to laugh along with another person, even if they are unaware of the reason the other person is experiencing mirth. It's also noted that there is a distinctly different quality between mirth and derision - that is, we can generally tell when we are being laughed with, as opposed to being laughed at, by the tone and expression of others.
Forms of Humor
A recap: the basic elements of humor are an emotional response of mirth in a social context, elicited by the perception of a playful incongruity, which is expressed in smiling and laughter. These basic instances are common to all instances of humor, but the kinds of situations that will arouse humor in a given individual are "remarkably diverse." As a result, the vehicles that deliver humor are correspondingly diverse.
We may seek out humor in the form of entertainment, but most of the humor we experience in daily life arises in normal interactions with everyday people - people we know in our various roles in society, as well as complete strangers who happen to encounter and interact with one another.
Individuals also vary in the degree to which they intentionally produce humor for others - and most people enjoy positive emotions so much that they take a liking to those who are able to make them laugh. Those with a "good sense of humor" are prized as friends and romantic partners, and there is ample opportunity for those who are especially skilled at delivering humor, as the "billions of dollars" spent on various forms of comedic entertainment each year attest.
As to humor that is encountered in everyday life, the author defines three broad categories for the most common types: jokes, conversational humor, and accidental humor.
A joke is an amusing story, sometimes referred to as "canned humor" because a joke is learned in advance and repeated as it was learned, rather than being adapted to the situation. Telling a joke is a kind of performance or recital, delivered in a deliberate manner.
Most jokes consist of a setup and a punch line. The setup sets expectations about how the situation should be interpreted, and the punch line violates those expectations in an amusing manner - hence the story ends with the bit that is intended to create mirth and evoke laughter.
Joking is often an obtrusive behavior. Generally, people who tell jokes cue their audience that they are about to tell a joke - which can be as clumsy as "I heard a good joke" or "Did you hear the one about ..." to signal the intent to tell a joke. (EN: I'd also add that this is an element that can provoke a social laugh, even when the joke is not funny.)
Some professional humorists will sometimes attempt to provide a set of context and continuity in routines consisting of jokes, while others will merely dole out a stream of entirely unrelated jokes. In everyday conversation, a joke might be related to the topic of conversation, or it might not be.
A joke is self-contained and generally does not depend upon a the context.
Conversational humor represents the majority of humor in everyday situations. The author mentions a journaling experiment in which participants kept a record of every time they laughed over the course of three days, which indicated only 11% of daily laughter resulted from jokes, another 17% elicited by entertainment media, and the remaining 872% by conversational humor.
Conversational humor consists of amusing remarks or stories people tell in the context of a conversation. Unlike jokes, they are not learned and repeated verbatim, they do not constitute a change of topic or interrupt the conversation, and they are often spontaneous and impromptu.
There is no set-up for a conversational joke, though people may use a facial expression or alter their tone of voice to communicate that they are intending to be humorous in their remark, and most conversational humor is subtle and elicits only a brief laugh so as not to derail or delay the conversation.
The author cites one source (Norrick 2003) that considers conversational humor to consist of three basic categories:
- Anecdotes - Amusing stories about oneself or someone else
- Wordplay - Such as puns, witty responses, dual entendre, etc.
- Irony - A statement in which the intended meaning is different to the literal meaning
Another source (Long 1988) provides a number of categories of conversational humor, as identified in recordings on naturalistic conversations in recorded television programs.
- Irony - A statement in which the intended meaning is different to the literal meaning
- Satire - Humor that derides a person or social institution
- Sarcasm - A remark that utilizes irony to make a person look foolish for missing the intended meaning
- Proportion - A comment that exaggerates or understates something
- Self-deprecation - A humorous remark that makes the speaker the object of humor, as an expression of modesty
- Teasing - Humorous remarks made about the person to whom the person is speaking, which are not intended as serious insults
- Answering Rhetorical Questions - Violating a conversational convention by providing an answer, and often an inappropriate one, to a rhetorical question
- Clever Replies - Providing an incongruous or nonsensical reply to a question that was meant to be serious
- Double Entendre - A statement that has multiple possible meanings, one of which is often sexual in nature
- Transformations - Modifying a familiar phrase or trite saying
- Puns - Playing upon a second meaning of a word, or a homophone
The author concedes that these categories are not mutually exclusive and that there may be other forms of spontaneous with, but the list provides a useful starting point for considering the way that humor is used in conversation.
(EN: A better model I encountered previous to reading this book was the "five jokes," which categorize humor into wordplay, proportion, insult, surprise, and absurdity - the lists the author provides often deal with subcategories [irony, puns, and dual entendre are forms of wordplay] and seems to miss others or address them obliquely and incompletely.)
In addition to the humor that is delivered purposefully, there is also humor that is entirely accidental - when an individual does or says something that he did not intend to be funny, but which others found to be funny nonetheless.
Accidental humor can take physical or verbal forms.
The physical forms are acts of clumsiness, particularly in situations in which an individual is attempting to attract esteem and is not seriously harmed by the incident.
Accidental verbal humor is more common, and may arise from defects in technical execution (misspellings, mispronunciations, spoonerisms, slips of the tongue, malapropisms, etc.) or misuses of language (mixed metaphors, poor word choice, etc.)
The Impracticality of Research
Of the various forms of humor, psychological research has been most focused on jokes or humorous illustrations, as these are self-contained and exposure can be controlled in various trials - the other forms of humor are more spontaneous, such that the experience of one test subject will be incongruous to that of the next.
However, humor is also highly individualistic and culturally based, such that experiments that attempt to rank or rate the funniness of a given joke have not produced consistent results - as the studies into how funny a joke is also reflects the respondent's sense of humor rather than the humor inherent to the joke itself.
It is also problematic that experimentation removes humor from its natural social context, such that any measurement of humor that occurs in a test environment is unable to accurately measure or correlate to "real" humor in the field.
While the topic of humor remains of intense interest, there has yet to be an experimental methodology that proves satisfactory, such that most of the conclusions we have about humor are drawn from less reliable forms of research: clinical, anecdotal, and ethnographic - which provide qualitative rather than quantitative perspectives.
Psychological Functions of Humor
While humor is a form of social play, and play is by definition not serious, the author postulates that humor has functional benefits that are related to species survival.
Cognitive and Social Functions of Mirth
To the individual, emotions function to focus the attention, which is most obvious in situations where survival is threatened and the fear or anger response focus the mind in a way that supports a course of action to avoid or overcome a threat.
(EN: Darwin's theory of emotions is a little different, in that emotions cause us to poise for action based on superficial association of stimuli to past experience - the actual action and any decision made afterward is a cognitive function. Except in the rare case of true reflex actions, which are quick and rare, there is a moment where we decide whether to act on an emotional trigger.)
The manner in which positive emotions support actions that support survival is less evident, as there is no immediate threat and in most instances no need for immediate action: in failing to act on a positive emotion, the subject may forego a benefit but suffers no harm.
For this reason, psychologists have largely focused their research and attention on the negative emotions, which are more immediate and less arbitrary. So little attention has been given to their positive counterparts.
Some researchers have associated positive emotions to high-brain functions and activities that are higher on Maslow's hierarchy: these emotions are experienced in a state of safety, and because immediate survival is not at stake, they are associated with creativity, innovation, planning, invention, and other productive actions.
It is theorized that negative emotions poise a subject to take a very specific action whereas positive emotions are not locked to a limited array of actions. The reaction to fear is limited to fight, flight, or flee - but there is not a finite or even definable set of reactions to elation or comfort. A person who is experiencing positive emotions has energy and is motivated, but there is no specific activity to which this energy is directed.
Others consider humor to be a method of mitigating negative emotions to return to a rational state, which can be seen when one person uses humor to interrupt a pattern of behavior that is motivated by anger, fear, sadness, or another negative emotion.
Emotions also have a social function - people react to the emotional state of others, or at least to the emotions they presume others to have based on their perception of expressive features (posture, gesture, etc.). And in the same way, the negative emotions of one person trigger very specific responses (cease interacting with someone who is angry) the positive emotions create feelings without directives (there is attraction to someone who is happy, but no specific action to take in regard to them).
Because we are attracted to positive emotions and the people who express them, it is reckoned that such emotions (including mirth) serve the social function of bonding - we are attracted to and wish to establish connections with a person who is expressing positive emotions, on the notion that their influence will cause us to experience positive emotions of our own.
We then act in ways that grant positive emotions to others as a means to strengthen and improve the bond. The positive emotional state is superficial, but precedes any functional benefit of a relationship with another party.
Social Communication and Influence
When people attempt to impact the emotions of others, it is often an intent to influence the behavior of others - even though they may be unable to recognize the reason they are attempting to do so.
Particularly for humor, it is suggested that people who use it have a vague goal of getting others to take interest in them, and in many cases to grant them esteem when humor demonstrates intelligence or cleverness.
Other theories (Mulkay 1988) suggest that humor is innuendo: that when one person recognizes the risk in communicating their desires directly, humor is a way to communicate their interest in a way that can safely be denied if the reaction they get is negative.
This is the value of humor in courtship, but it can also be used in other situations, such as communicating political ideas (a person tells a joke to see if the other person agrees with their ideology, particularly when their ideology is unpopular or holding their ideas may result in punishment, and can retreat to safety if it is apparent the other person does not).
And, of course, humor's ability to interrupt a sequence of events that are motivated by negative emotions can be used in social situations to diffuse tension or mitigate offense that has been given, or to express embarrassment and apology in a way that allows an individual to save face.
Humor is also not necessarily positive, as derision is a form of humor that is used to express contempt - to indicate that the person who is the object of derision is excluded from the humorist's group or class.
- Third-person mockery (making fun of one who is not present) is a test to see if those who are present share contempt (if they laugh, their contempt is confirmed)
- Second-person mockery (making fun of someone who is present) is an expression of contempt for that person. The same is true of third-person mockery when the subject of the humor is able to perceive it.
- First-person mockery (making fun of oneself) tests whether others hold us in contempt, as their reaction indicates their perspective or opinion of the speaker.
(EN: This schema considers mockery only in the sense that a person is an object of derision. The author seems to be overlooking instances in which mockery is of an action - the humorist is not expressing contempt for the person, but for the action they performed. This is a significant distinction and failing to recognize it may mischaracterize mockery.)
Of course, this is often very subtle: the derision may often be a "tease" that expresses endearment of a person rather than contempt for them, and reactions can be subtle (the manner in which others react to a self-deprecating joke communicates whether they agree or disagree).
Mockery may be used to bring someone down from a position of overly inflated self-esteem - schadenfreude is the emotion of joy at the misfortune of others when the misfortune is deserved. It may also be used to bring another person down to one's own level in order to facilitate rather than discourage a social connection.
Humor can also be used to reinforce social norms. Because the punch line of a joke violates expectations, people whose behavior violates social expectations is an easy target for mockery - and by mocking them directly, we are discouraging them from violating social norms. At the same time, the reactions of others may be helpful in defining social norms - if they do not find the joke funny, it is because they do not find the behavior to be unexpected or unusual, and therefore the humorist learns that the social norms are different to his assumption.
In sum, humor is not inherently amiable or aggressive but can be used for both purposes - and is difficult to interpret because ambiguity is often involved in humor itself: whether a remark was meant as a joke, what the joke was meant to apply, the manner in which people react, and the manner in which that reaction is interpreted, all make it difficult to pin down the significance of a given humorous remark.
Tension Relief and Coping with Adversity
Because humor is interruptive and distracting, it can be effective in relieving tension and coping with adversity. A joke can interrupt the domino effect of negative emotions and cause people to reevaluate their situation and take a more effective course of action. Aside of providing a moment of positive emotion in a negative situation, it can be used to interrupt anger, fear, and sadness in a way that leads to a shift in perspective.
There is some correlation between humor and physiological benefits: the experience of mirth causes a change in pulse and respiration and releases hormones into the body that cause changes. The specific causations are vaguely defined, but it is generally observed that humor has positive benefits to physical health, particularly to conditions that result from stress.
Because negative emotions lead us to reflexive actions and cause us to focus on a limited set of options, interrupting negative emotions can reengage the rational mind, enabling people to think more broadly and more creatively. In that way, humor has a functional benefit of helping people to discover solutions to unpleasant situations.
In addition to coping with an ongoing situation, humor is used to signal the end of an unpleasant situation. The joke that is told once suffering has passed is a test to get others to confirm that the situation has indeed come to an end, and to get reassurance that it is appropriate to shift back to normal life.
Studies of extreme adversity such as the brutal conditions of internment camps indicate that humor, particularly jokes about the situation and its hardships, serves to engender positive emotions in a negative situation, to build cohesion and morale within a group of fellow sufferers, and kindle hope in seemingly hopeless situations that improves the capacity for perseverance. Other studies among cancer patients similarly demonstrate that humor enables them to make light of their illness and maintain a spirit of optimism.
The sadness and disappointment of everyday life may not be quite as extreme or constant, there is still the need to set negative emotions aside to pursue a positive course of action, or to abide unpleasantness when no action can be taken to solve the problem.
In the same situations, derisive humor can mitigate negative emotions, belittling the cause of anger or fear, and granting people the sense of power to surmount a challenge. This is particularly true in instances where the cause of a difficult situation is an individual, group, or institution who seems to be in a position of unquestionable power over the sufferers.
The author suggests that humor in these situations is also a social phenomenon, and that people are not likely to crack jokes about their own problems when they are alone. (EN: I disagree. Humor begins in the mind of an individual, and he must find his own situation humorous and then contrive a way to express this sentiment to others. Humorous thoughts can be used to alleviate negative emotions even when a person is the sole sufferer of a condition.)
Coping humor is more often about sharing a perspective with others who are in the same situation, to build cohesiveness and mutual support among members of a group. Humor is present in people who are going through a very difficult situation together as a means to express their togetherness - and many relationships that involve periods of difficulty often involve humorous reminiscence over past difficulties as a means to rekindle the sense of solidarity.
A Brief History of Humor
The modern term "humor" is a vaguely defined and serves as a catch-all for a wide array of behaviors that evoke mirth and laughter. The author suggests this is a relatively recent development, which is a convergence of a broader array of concepts that has caused the idea of humor to become vague. Considering the history of humor is therefore useful in understanding it in greater complexity.
Etymology of Humor
Linguistically, "humor" comes from a Latin term (humorem) which meant something that was fluid, liquid, or formless - and can be seen in literature to represent any bodily fluid - such as "the aqueous and viscous humors of the eye."
Bodily fluids were the basis of the Greek concept of health, as Hippocrates suggested that the health of the body depended on maintain the proper balance of the four humors of the body (blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile) - and from there, Galen extrapolated that the balance of the bodily humors also had to do with a person's psychological state. Blood was related to excitement, black bile to melancholy, etc.
It was theorized that each person had a different balance of these fluids, which determined their personality, but that the fluids could become temporarily imbalanced, creating dramatic short-term effects on emotion and mood. This gives rise to the use of the word humor to speak about a personality: whether a person was good-humored, bad-humored, or merely not in their usual state of humors.
It wasn't until the sixteenth century (1598) that the term became associated with amusement and laughter - in particular, in associating humor to a person whose behavior was eccentric (as depicted in Johnson's "Man Out of His Humor"). This is also the period in which the term "funny" arose, but as a synonym of "peculiar" rather than "amusing" - though a portraying a person whose behavior is peculiar in an amusing and non-threatening is a common foil for humorists.
Around the seventeenth century, a person whose behavior evoked laughter was referred to as a "humorist" whereas a person who called attention to things that were funny was a "man of humor," though the former term became adopted for anyone that caused laughter regardless of whether it was from physical demonstration or verbal description.
And by that path, the term "humor" came to denote anything that evokes laughter, and "humorist" came to denote anyone who causes others to laugh.
Changing Views of Laughter
Through most of western history, laughter was viewed entirely in negative terms. Virtually all reference to laughter in the bible and Greek literature associated laughter with scorn, derision, mockery, or contempt. In English philosophy, laughter was associated to a feeing of superiority, or the "sudden glory resulting from some perception of inferiority in another person."
Some time in the eighteenth century, the term "ridicule" was adopted for aggressive or disrespectful wit - and while the practice of using humor to deride and belittle others became quite popular, it also recognized that ridicule was not he only source of laughter. The term "banter," which connoted conversational humor in various forms, also emerged during the same time.
By the early nineteenth century, a gentle humor became part of amiable conversation. It was still largely narcissistic, mean to demonstrate the cleverness of the speaker in toying with imaginative ideas, but it was not necessarily directed at other people. This was accompanied by a new sensibility, chiefly in British society, that emphasized benevolence, kindness, and civility toward others, along with sympathy toward those who were previously considered the object of scorn.
Early considerations of humor as a form of manners in polite society drew a contrast between wit (a demonstration of cleverness and intelligence) and humor (a demonstration of foolishness, clumsiness, or stupidity) - both of which being contrasted to ridicule because they were not directed at a contemptible individual. However, there was not a clean separation as with could be categorized as being congenial or sarcastic.
The disparity between wit and humor was also considered part of the distinction of classes. Wit was sophisticated and aristocratic, a demonstration of a person's intellectual ability that invited others to laugh with the speaker. Humor was evident among the lower classes, and considered to be a clownish buffoonery that caused others to laugh at the performer.
While with was considered superior, humor was considered more endearing: it was not an expression of elitism, but more friendly and democratic: to make oneself the object of laughter was entirely benign. Particularly as societies became more democratic and egalitarian, wit fell out of fashion as snobbish and arrogant.
Entering the twentieth century, the distinction between wit and humor gradually disappeared, and "humor" became a blanket term for all things laughable. It swept into one category buffoonery, with, and ridicule and generally erased the distinction between humor that was distinguished or low-class, kind or cruel, intelligent or brutish. It is not that people no longer considered certain instances of humor to have those qualities, but they no longer had words to describe them and considered humor to be the parent category of all.
In summary, the concept of humor underwent a radical change in the seventeenth through twentieth centuries, though elements of the original forms of humor can still be seen.
Evolution of the Concept of Sense of Humor
A person's "sense of humor" is a different thing to humor itself, in that it does not involve the practice of giving mirth to others, but in perceiving humor and having the ability to experience mirth. It is a personal attitude or attribute, rather than a social behavior.
This concept largely arose from the notion of moral senses, which like the physical senses (sight, hearing, etc.) granted a person the ability to perceive and comprehend. Some men's senses were more acute by others, either by accident of birth or by study and practice - such that the ability to discern amusement was more developed in some than in others.
The sense of humor (sometimes called the sense of ridiculousness) was likened to a person's sense of beauty, sense of honor, and other "senses" that conveyed the ability to perceive and appreciate concepts as well as things.
Viewed in this manner, a person's sense of humor was a mark of intellectual sophistication - though it was not necessarily a mark of virtue or good character because of the way in which humor was perceived at the time (ridicule and derision) - much in the way that being intelligent was not a virtue because it could be used for purposes that were beneficial or detrimental to others.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the concept of a sense of humor came to be desirable - but because humor was at the same time becoming nebulous, so was the value of having a developed and pronounced sense of humor. It retained the qualities of a perceptual skill, but also came to include the ability to share one's perception with others in a way that enabled them to experience the amusement of the observer.
In general, having a sense of humor had a positive connotation. By contrast, a person with "no sense of humor" was viewed in a negative light: such men were small-minded, fanatical, intolerant, temperamental, etc. Though ultimately, having too pronounced or repressed a sense of humor were both seen as indications of mental illness.
By the 1930s, psychologists began to embrace sense of humor as a sign of intellectual development and good mental health. Individuals with a sense of humor were perceived as more creative and having better coping skills. Having a proper sense of humor was an indication of being stable and well-adjusted, affable and easygoing.
Humor also had political connotations in democratic and egalitarian societies. It came to be seen as a distinctly American virtue, having to do with tolerance and fraternity - and was starkly contrasted to the lack of humor evident in dictatorships and hierarchical societies. Being humorless was a sign of arrogance, even hatefulness towards one's fellow man.
Also in the twentieth century, it became expected for public figures to be more human and approachable rather than aloof and stoic, and expressing a fine sense of humor was a sign of humility and grace. Even politicians were permitted, and even expected, to smile and engage in banter and include humorous remarks in political speeches.
The idea that humor and laughter are beneficial to one's health led to a growth of a popular 'humor and health movement" that engaged many healthcare providers (nurses, therapists, physicians, etc.) to employ humor as a method of improving the emotional state of patients, thereby distracting them from pain and discomfort. While claims of actual medical benefits have not been scientifically substantiated, they gained popular acceptance nonetheless.
In the present day, the perspective on laughter and humor continues to be predominately positive. Although there is sensitivity to humor that is aggressive or appropriate, thee forms of humor are regarded as aberrations and "normal" humor is regarded as benevolent. In fact, the more aggressive forms of humor are increasingly excluded from the concept of humor by researchers and theorists.
A Warning about Historical Theories
Considering the way in which the definition and perception of humor has changed radically over the past few centuries, care must be taken in considering any historical or foundational works in their approach to the subject: while they use the term "humor" the concept they represent as such is likely much different to humor in the way we understand it in the present day.
Humor and Psychology
Psychology is, or at least includes, a systematic study of behavior. It begins with the overt actions that can be observed, and then seeks to understand the reasons a given behavior occurred: the perception, beliefs, motivations, and other mental and biological processes that caused a given person to behave a certain way. The concept is very diverse.
(EN: There's a bit more about soft sciences - the use of the scientific method, the various methods of research, etc. - which is interesting but not particularly germane to the topic of humor, so I'm not preserving notes.)
Humor involves a distinct set of behaviors, but has been largely ignored by psychologists. There is actually quite a lot of research into the subject, though mostly as mention in research into other behaviors, but it has very little coordination. As such the understanding of humor in the professional and academic community is piecemeal, oblique, and often inconsistent.
Humor as Wellness
The author speculates that the lack of a coordinated and serious effort is simply because humor itself is not serious. There are very few instances in which humor is an obstacle to living a normal life and being a productive member of society, though it has received some attention because it is suspected that it is helpful in maintaining a positive mood that supports a healthy and productive lifestyle.
There is a counterargument that humor seems frivolous because it has not been considered - and perhaps if psychologists gave the matter more attention they might discover it has significant value. In effect, that humor is not ignored because it is trivial, but that it is considered to be trivial because it has been ignored. This suggests that investing attention would uncover reasons it should be taken seriously - and, indeed, the instances in which humor has gained attention have led to the recognition of its value.
He briefly mentions the "positive psychology" trend in academia, which represents a shift in the perspective of medicine and psychology. Historically, healthcare was directed to the negative - diseases and debilitating conditions and how to cure them - but in the positive movement there is more attention to general wellness and improvement rather than merely reacting to obvious problems. And so it is with psychology, transitioning from an approach that gave attention only to disorderly behavior to one that considers mental well being of individuals who are not "sick" or debilitated. And as such more attention is given to benign phenomena such as humor.
Humor as Uncharted Territory
A second reason for ignoring the topic of humor is "the sheer elusiveness of the topic" - which is to say that humor is hard to observe and hard to study, so it isn't studied. It's not merely a matter of laziness, but the inability to observe it as a means to gather evidence to develop and support hypotheses in a scientific manner, without intruding upon and corrupting the natural phenomenon.
Naturally, the author fires back that the difficulty of studying humor is all the more reason to try: because we do not presently have a good method for observing or analyzing humor, there is a great deal of opportunity to discover effective methods for observation and analysis. There's a great deal of unexplored territory.
Multidisciplinary and Practical Interest
The author then mentions that a number of fields outside of psychology have shown interest in the topic of humor. Naturally, the sister disciplines of sociology and anthropology are interested in humor as a factor in behavior - but it is also of interest in biology and medicine, linguistics and literature, history and cultural studies, philosophy, mathematics, and other academic areas. There is an International Society for Humor Studies (ISGS) that is a multidisciplinary organization of scholars and an International Journal of Humor Research that also draws attention from a broad array of academic fields.
In practical terms, humor is of interest in healthcare and clinical psychology, where its curative, restorative, and maintenance qualities are being explored in a more practical manner. (EN: The author leaves out the commercial sector - marketing and personnel management in particular are interested in behavior and influence, and there is a growing sense that humor and positive emotions contribute to relationships in a positive manner.)
(EN: the conclusion summarizes some of the key points made in previous sections of the chapter, and provides a look ahead to the next few chapters as a method of transitioning and giving contexts - so any notes would be redundant and premature, respectively.)