3: Arousal, Incongruity, and Reversal Theories

In the present chapter, the author means to discuss three additional theories of humor:

  1. Arousal - humor as a physiological and psychological response to the onset of an emotional state
  2. Incongruity - humor as a reaction to stimuli that contradict existing knowledge
  3. Reversal - humor as a form of mental play that explores opposing and incompatible points of view

As in the last chapter, it is not the author's intention to espouse or champion any of these theories, but suggests that understanding each of them contributes to an broad perspective of humor.

Arousal Theories

The theories in the previous chapter (psychoanalytic and superiority) had in common that humor was a method by which the energy of emotion was expelled from the subject - but give only superficial consideration to the way in which the energy came to exist in the first place, except to suggest it is sexual or aggressive impulses that exist of their own accord. These are not the only tension-relief theories of behavior, all of which fail to consider the same prerequisite question.

Arousal theories accept that the behavior of laughter, speech, and performance are expressions of emotion - but also consider humor to be the cause of the emotion that is expressed. In humor that occurs naturally, some stimuli in the environment causes emotional tension to exist - and in humor that is created artificially, through intentional act, creates the tension so that it can be expelled.

This follows in the model of a joke, which approaches an audience that is in a state of indifference or complacency, creates tension, and then triggers the release of that same tension. By this model, humor arouses emotion - and the reaction to humor (laughter) is the release of the emotion created by humor.

Specifically, a subject does not have to be pre-loaded with pent-up tension from another source in order to enjoy humor. There is the concept of an "arousal jug" that tips over when it has been filled to a sufficient level - much in the nature of an electronic circuit that stores power slowly and releases it in a burst when it has achieve a sufficient charge.

(EN: This seems to me a common factor with many emotional outbursts - a person who expresses anger or hostility may in some instances react immediately to a source of irritation, but more often an individual tolerates a sequence of minor irritations until they reach a point in which they have taken all they can, and then react. Virtually every emotion has this quality.)

Empirical Investigations

Arousal theories received "a considerable amount of research attention" around the 1970, when there was great interest in the arousal of emotions in general. The focus of the research was therefore the emotional component of humor, which the author has named "mirth."

One experiment (Schachter 1967) dosed subjects with a number of psychoactive drugs and hormones, and found that those who were given epinephrine rated comedic performances (on film) as being funnier than those in the other groups, and those who received chlorpromazine rated the experience as less funny. The two drugs increase or decrease sympathetic arousal, correspondingly.

This suggests that the emotions aroused by humor are not merely by virtue of the humor itself, but are reflective of a psychological state in which a person encounters humorous stimuli.

Additional research (Gavanski 1986) found that the physical reactions to humor were more closely related to the emotional enjoyment of humor than to the cognitive understanding - hence the reason people will laugh at a joke they do not understand because they recognize the pattern of humor, or a cued by the emotional responses of others.

Another experiment (Levi 1965) collected urine samples from participants who were shown four films (neutral, fear-arousing, anger-arousing, and comedic) to monitor the levels of hormones in their systems that arose naturally. The findings indicated that all the films contrived to evoke emotions caused an increase in hormone production (epinephrine and norepinephrine), but that there was no significant difference according to the kind of emotion - all emotional responses evoked the release of the same hormones.

A few other studies are cited that considered "various psychophysiological variables."

Another experiment is mentioned that considers the existing mental state of the subject prior to experiencing humor (Cantor 1974), which suggests that people who are in a positive state of mind (having read amusing articles before being subjected to humor) were more responsive to humor than those who were in a negative state of mind (having read articles with a tone of sadness, anger, or fear). However, it is observed that the pitch of an emotional state also contributes to appreciation of humor - even those who read the negative articles had a stronger response to humor than a control group who had read neutral articles or nothing at all.

Another experiment (Sharcliff 1968) tested the anxiety-relief hypothesis of humor by asking participants to remove a white rat from a cage, only to find it was a toy. Those who were asked merely to handle the rat showed less anxiety than those who were also told they would have to inject the rat with a menacing-looking needle, though the outcome of this was a bit ambiguous: more tension was evident in the subjects, and so more tension was released - but this did not report having found the situation funnier.


The research based on arousal theories has contributed much to our understanding of the subject of humor. While the evidence is insufficient to suggest that humor is caused exclusively by the increase and release of nervous energy, there is clarity and consistency in the findings to support that tension is at least a factor.

Hence, a person who is experiencing tension before being exposed to humor, or one whose tension is increased during the course of the setup, will have a stronger reaction when the punch line is delivered, and will generally find the joke to be funnier as a consequence.

Research continues into this area, which seeks to measure additional factors, and with special attention to whether the reaction to humor - the physical changes that occur during the relief of tension, may have therapeutic benefits.

Incongruity Theories

Theories of incongruity focus even more on cognition and set aside the social and emotional aspects of humor. In essence, these theories suggest that the perception of incongruity - encountering a stimulus or idea that simply doesn't jibe with our past experience and mental frameworks, is the crucial determinant of whether or not it is humorous.

It is an evaluative process: merely being incongruous does not make something laughable, but it does make it come to our attention as something strange and unusual. We evaluate first whether it is a treat, then whether it is useful to us in some way, and if it fails both those tests - in effect, it is nonthreatening and superficial - we then consider whether it can be discarded with a laugh.

The poet James Beattie observed that laughter is the resolution of a paradox, when tow inconsistent and incompatible ideas collide. Schopenhauer likewise found laughter in incongruities that wer found to be unimportant. This notion made its way to psychology in 1942, when Hans Eyesnck considered the possibility that laughter is "a sudden, insightful integration of contradictory or incongruous ideas."

The most serviceable example of incongruity is the pun, in which a word has multiple meanings, and the meaning of the sentence in which it is included changes dramatically if one or the other meaning is applied. The humor in a pun is the surprise in discovering the dual meaning, or perhaps embarrassment in having chosen the wrong meaning first.

There is some notion of incongruity in the superiority theory of humor, which suggests that the laughter that results from recognizing a dual meaning is scorn for the person, even if it ourselves, who was stupid enough to consider the wrong alternative seriously for a moment, and self-approbation for our own superior ability to sort it faster.

There is a two-stage model of humor comprehension (Suls 1972) that considers the mechanism by which humor works. According to the model, the setup of a joke leads the listener to make a prediction about what the outcome of a story will be, and these expectations are then contradicted in the punch line.

This considers humor to be analogous to the cognitive task of problem solving. Where the subject is able to identify the incongruous rules and appreciate the duality of meaning, the joke is funny. Where the subject is unable to identify the rules, it is not - and the subject may be bewildered, or may not notice that a joke has been told at all.

Some forms of incongruous humor, particularly in conversational humor, do not provide an obvious resolution - but leave it to the audience to recognize and resolve the incongruity on their own. In this model, the subject may recognize it immediately, later, or not at all.

The author provides a few examples of incongruous humor that work on multiple levels - and suggests that while other theories focus on the secondary aspects, those who hold to incongruity theory merely ignore them, or relegate them to a position of secondary influence.

(EN: A broader perspective might be that a joke can "work on several levels" in order to be more broadly appealing: one member of the audience might discover the incongruity, another may be entertained by the sexual or aggressive depiction, etc.)

Likewise, there can arise an internal conflict over whether a joke that is based on incongruity is funny if the secondary elements are offensive. For example, a pun whose second meaning is disparaging toward members of a given nationality may be appreciated for the incongruity, or found offensive for the aggression. This suggests that incongruity is not the only source of humor, nor the most influential.

There is a brief discussion over whether a person who makes a joke that is insensitive to a given group intends hostility, or is merely using known stereotypes as a foil. The conflict between the two cannot be satisfactorily resolved because both are possible - it depends on the individual, the topic, and the circumstances.

There is also the suggestion (Forabosco 1992) that the incongruity present in a joke can never be fully resolved - that even if one understands multiple meanings, it is not possible to suggest that one among them is the correct one in all instances. If it were so, then the joke would be regarded as a non-humorous riddle or puzzle rather than a joke.

Empirical Investigations

The author details a number of research studies and experiments based on the incongruity theory.

Shultz (1974) presented subjects wit ha series of jokes and asked them to speak to the order in which they noticed elements, finding that many did not recognize the ambiguity in the setup until after the punch line was delivered. A separate study used visual cartoons instead of verbal jokes, and also showed participants tended to notice incongruous elements before noticing the details that resolved the incongruity.

The same researcher also experimented with making adjustments to jokes to remove the incongruity. Naturally, subjects found these stories to be unremarkable, puzzling, or nonsensical - but did not find them to be funny at all - though it is notable that when the same stories were used with grade-school children, they often elicited a social laugh. In contrasting the children of various ages, it was found that in very young children, incongruity alone is sufficient to elicit laughter, but in older children the incongruity must be resolved to do so.

(EN: Alternately, this may suggest the ability to recognize the pattern of a joke develops at an early age, along with the proclivity to appease the humorist by laughing when it seems that something is supposed to be funny, even if the subject doesn't get the joke. The tendency to withhold a social laugh develops at an older age, when children feel more independent and feel it is acceptable not to appease others.)

Naturally, these experiments have their critics, who point out that using jokes that operate on multiple levels corrupts the results, and it is in the process of analysis that assumptions are made about which element was most influential to the subjects. However, the author feels that the second set of experiments, which extracted only the ambiguity and left the aggressive elements of humor intact, should be convincing evidence.

(EN: This actually goes on for a while, with experiments seeking to prove or disprove the hypothesis, and niggling criticisms of each. I'll skip forward a bit.)

If incongruity is the source of humor, it would stand to reason that the greater the incongruity, the funnier the joke. However, research fails to support this hypothesis - largely because there is a level at which an incongruity is unresolvable, and jokes wit ha high degree of incongruity simply seem like nonsense.

A separate study (Mers 1874) gauged the ability of an audience to predict the punch lines of incongruous jokes by playing recordings of stand-up comedians and stopping just before a punch line was to be delivered, and compared this to a separate set of ratings by individuals who heard the entire joke and rated its funniness. What was found is that jokes are found to be funnier when people can predict the punch line than when it is entirely unexpected. This suggests that the laughter response is an exclamation of achievement rather than an expression of surprise.

(EN: I'd contradict this with personal observation, in that people seem to be more greatly amused in conversational humor when the punch line is not only unexpected but undelivered, such that the audience must figure out the joke for themselves. People seem to take greater pleasure when the "time bomb" goes off and they recall these jokes better in arrears.)


The incongruity theories called the attention of cognitive psychology to the topic of humor, which had long been neglected in favor of emotional and social approaches. This opened the door to further investigations of a cognitive nature, such that the cognitive approach has largely eclipsed the emotional one in the study of humor, though emotional approaches are still under investigation. The social approach, meanwhile, remains embedded within both approaches, as both cognition and emotionalism can be considered in a social context.

While research has failed to uphold the notion that incongruity is the exclusive source of humor, it has also shown that incongruity is a factor of considerable influence in determining what people find to be funny: an incongruity signals the mind that something is peculiar and ought to be funny, and its resolution effects the mirth at the recognition of the incongruity.

However, the evidence that resolution is the cause of humor is weakened by the "pretend" social laughter, and the inability of researchers to definitively sort out whether an individual who laughs at incongruity absent resolution is expressing genuine or feigned mirth.

There is the sense that "you had to be there" is entirely true of some forms of humor. Verbal jokes and cartoons are often entirely elf-contained, and present the audience with all the information they require to understand the context, the incongruity, and the resolution of the humor. Conversational and situational humor often do not, and it may be difficult for individuals to articulate the components that cause humor to arise to anyone who did not experience the incident first-hand.

This leads to another weakness in incongruity-resolution theories: there is no effective way to separate the manner in which the social context of joke-telling impacts the degree to which a joke is found to be humorous. In particular, when subjects involved in research are told that they are going to be subjected to humor, they become more inclined to give attention to a joke and analyze its components than they normally would be in a natural setting.

This criticism likely applies only to subtle and contextual forms of humor. Even in a natural setting, there are individuals who announce that they are about to tell a joke before telling it, or suggest that a cartoon is funny before showing it. So this criticism is only valid in reference to natural humor that does not have such an obvious and clumsy setup.

It's also briefly mentioned that telling someone that humor is about to be delivered is a method of signaling them to deliver a social laugh, whether the humor is found to be amusing or not. Again, this is as true of announced humor in a natural setting as it is of laboratory experimentation.

The author concedes that the ambiguity of theory of humor, while rather compelling, is not a universal or exclusive explanation of humor, but should be taken into context with emotional and social aspects to understand the various levels on which humor works.

It's further conceded that rabid enthusiasts of incongruity theory can be just as tenacious, to the point of ridiculousness, as the aggression theorists in insisting that all humor is explained by their theory, stretching and distorting humor to fit their preconceptions.

Reversal Theory

"Surprisingly few" of the early theorists recognized humor as a form of play, and it was not until 1936 that Max Eastman mentioned it in the literature. His case was that humor is a form of play, and any theory of humor that does not draw a distinction between playfulness and seriousness would not stand.

Consider the manner in which the play of animals mimics hunting and combative behaviors - as a form of humor, it generates mirth by having the superficial appearance of threatening behavior, but the actual quality of nonthreatening friendliness, and the recognition that something is the opposite of what it superficially seems to be is the focus of reversal theory.

Play takes place in a psychological "safety zone" in which there is the belief, a kind of trust, that one is protected from negative outcomes. This pertains not only to the gentle actions of seemingly hostile creatures, but the benign nature of a seemingly threatening object or environment.

There is also the notion that play exists outside of a telic state - that it is not done to achieve an objective, but the emotional pleasure of being engaged in the activity of play is its own reward. The term that the author uses is "paratelic" (outside of goal-oriented behavior).

In humans, risk-oriented behavior is often paratelic: to ride a roller coaster, ski down a hill, or engage in other forms of activity generates emotional pleasure that is its own purpose - as is watching horror movies. Behavior of this nature is not strictly to experience mirth, but to experience emotions, even those that have a negative quality under normal circumstances (but are experienced in a safe state).

Reversal also borrows some of the cognitive aspects of incongruity theories, in that the discovery or realization of the safe nature of an apparently dangerous situation is a process of discovery that leads to pleasure.

This also dovetails with aggressive humor: when an individual feels themselves to be the subject of a humorous attack, but then realizes that the remark was not truly intended to cause offense but was spoken in jest.

It's also suggested that humor exists in a delicate balance, such that it requires a certain level of cognitive effort. If the jest is too easily perceived as playful, then it has low humor value. If the jest is too difficult to perceive as playful, then it causes aggression. The jest must be in the "sweet spot" where its playful nature isn't immediately recognized, but is recognized quickly enough to interrupt an aggression response.

Reversal theory extends beyond aggression to any joke in which a perception is changed to its opposite. It is similar to incongruity, but stricter in its application: in an incongruous joke, there is merely a difference that may not be a complete reversal, and the resolution of incongruity may be that multiple options make sense rather than fully abandoning an initial impression for a realized interpretation.

Empirical Investigations

Many of the research studies that consider the reversal theory have already been discussed in the context of incongruity, which encompasses reversals among other forms of incongruity. (EN: The author dredges some of this back up, but I'll simply state "scroll up" to see them discussed in the original context.) In essence, these studies support the basis of reversal theory: that laughter and mirth are a product of relief that we feel when a contradiction is initially taken to be a threat, but is soon recognized to be benign and/or unimportant.

A study into aggression theory (Mio 1991) uncovered reversals in instances where an insult was regarded as implausible or coming from a source that lacks credibility. To laugh when being scored is a reversal, which recognizes that the scorn that seems to constitute a threat to our esteem is not at all a threat, hence laughable.

When a person is in a paratelic state, not attempting to achieve a goal, they are likely to regard any contradictions they observe as being trivial - and the mere discovery of such a contradiction is laughable because it is not an obstacle to the achievement of any goal nor an intrusion on the observer's present state of contentment.

One set of studies (Wyer 1992) was specifically designed to test the validity of reversal theory. Subjects were presented with stories/dialogs that were rigged at the onset to have one interpretation but, during the course of the story, it would be discovered that there was a different interpretation (e.g. a dialog that seemed to be about committing a murder turns out to be a discussion about how to open a jar, another started out to sound like two people talking about sex but turns out to be about how to wash a dog). As expected, the stories in which the reversal was more subtle, and was discovered later, were found to be more humorous.

It's noted that the study put participants in an analytical state of mind, as they knew from the onset that their task was to figure out what the stories were about. This is not significantly different to what occurs in a natural setting - unless a person has been told the topic in advance, he does not know what a story is about and discovers it for himself while reading (it is also generally known that telling a person what a story is about in advance "spoils" the experience).

It's also worth considering whether any expectations an individual has in advance of an experience either heighten the humor of discovery (when their expectation was contrary to the actual outcome) or diminish the humor (when their expectation is not contradicted, but merely fulfilled by the turn of events).

A brief mention is made of jokes that set expectations that presume an existing frame of mind - for example, a joke in which the character of a nun is included in the setup presumes the listener considers a nun to be chaste, and her chastity will be questioned or reversed in the punch line. When the joke is altered to change the character of "nun" to a generic woman, or a prostitute, then the joke loses its humor value because expectations are not reversed.


Reversal theory integrates many of the components of those kinds of humor already described: the reversal may touch on sexuality or aggression, may deal with the reversal of social rank, or may merely consider an incongruity in the interpretation of situations and events.

This theory is merely more specific and has more stringent qualifications, namely that there is a spirit of playfulness about reversals, that they completely invert rather than merely muddle the interpretation, and that they generally involve the recognition that am innocuous situation was misperceived as a threat.

Because of the involvement of threat, reversal theory is particularly interesting to those who support the hypothesis that humor is a coping mechanism, used to dismiss or mitigate stress in threatening circumstances. The mechanism of reversal is cognitive, and effects a re-interpretation - which also makes it useful in practical scenarios in which planning is muddled by focusing on threats and failing to observe opportunities.

It is also held that reversal theory leads to practical benefits of humor: by temporarily engaging in play, the train of thought is derailed and can be redirected to more productive ends.


Each of the theories in the present chapter and the former one presents a perspective on humor that is neither universal nor inapplicable - they each have validity pertinent to some forms of humor in some situations.

The author's intention in presenting them is not to champion one particular theory over its rivals, but to give the reader a broad range of perspectives so that he may evaluate specific instances from multiple perspectives - to appreciate that a "joke" may function on more than one level, and by more than one means.

Neither is the amalgamation of these five theories comprehensive: there are likely other theories, and other instances of humor that none of these theories is capable of explaining.

In sum, humor is very diverse and complex, and psychology's early attempts to understand it have not been entirely satisfactory, but reveal enough accurate information to merit continued consideration.