4: Cognitive Psychology of Humor

In this chapter, the author intends to focus on the cognitive processes involved in humor. How does a person "get" a joke or perceive a situation as comical? Additionally, he will explore the relationship between humor and cognition: whether humor improves the memory or causes people to think more creatively.

As a basic definition: cognitive psychology is the study of mental processes and their role in thinking, feeling, and behaving. Our present understanding of cognition (EN: and our potential misunderstanding it) is likened to an electronic computer that receives information, stores it, processes it, and generates output. It's a very apt analogy that is often leveraged.

For the most part, cognitive psychologists have shown little interest in humor. The task of figuring out how the brain works on a literal and functional level is difficult enough without attempting to account on figurative and frivolous activities.

Psycholinguistics touches briefly on the notion, particularly in considering the manner in which the mind makes sense of words and symbols, which occasionally means dealing with ambiguity and paradox in a phrase that can have multiple interpretations.

"Cognitive science" is a broader term for various fields that consider cognition - which includes not only psychology but sociology, linguistics, neurology, and the like. Each of these disciplines has contributed to our overall understanding of cognition and some interplay is inevitable.

Humor, Incongruity, and Schemas

Cognitive theories generally view some manner of incongruity as a defining characteristic of humor. Two or more incompatible and even contradictory interpretations arise from sense-data, and the mind grapples with the problem of determining which is most significant or germane to a greater context - and when the mind has the leisure and there is no immediate threat, it can play with the possibilities.

There remains some argument whether incongruity alone is sufficient to humor, and whether resolution is strictly essential. An error or indiscrepancy alone does not trigger the response of mirth in all circumstances, and there can be no denying that the funniest jokes are those that correspond to multiple factors that are associated to humor.

Schemas, Frames, and Scripts

Cognitive psychologists have put a great deal of effort into understanding the way in which information is stored and organized within the human mind. A common concept is that of a "schema," which is a loose container of information that pertains to the same basic subject.

Everything we know or believe about "trees" is part of that schema, and any new information we encounter about a tree is compared to the existing tree schema. And the tree schema contains within it references to other schemas (the leaf schema) and is itself part of a larger schema (plants), or multiple ones (plants, forests, parks, etc.).

At the same time, schemas are imprecise: a given perception may exist in multiple schemas (a juniper may be both shrub and tree), contain imprecise information (we may realize bamboo is not a tree but maintain it in the tree schema), and contain other information (a shoe tree and a family tree are not the same kind of trees, but touch on the same schema).

There's a great deal of speculation about the way we consider objects and associate them to multiple trees - particularly in the categorization of things. Our concept of birds involve feathered creatures that fly, but also extends to accept some flightless creatures as species of bird. There is not much precision, and many objects are defined loosely in terms that are usually but not always true.

Where new data is delivered by out senses, we then compare it to the various existing schemas, in a manner that begins broadly and becomes narrower as we gain familiarity. We recognize an object in the sky and multiple schemas are activated (bird, kite, plane, balloon) and a winnowing process takes place as we recognize the more subtle qualities that enable us to arrive at a conclusion ... most of the time.

Schemas represent our expectations, based on past experiences, not only of objects but of events and procedures. Upon entering a restaurant, we have a certain expectation of the order of service, based on our past experience, and become perturbed when that sequence is altered or violated. (EN: We also have a sense of how much time things ought to take, which is a more common cause of frustration even when the sequence meets expectations.)

Those things and events we encounter that correlate to our existing schema are hardly noticed - but those things that are contrary or different to our expectations, that do not match our schema, engage the mind: to gather additional data and find a schema to contain this new experience, or to alter an existing schema so that it can be included.

Applications of Schema Theory to Humor

The mechanism by which humor leverages schemas is that the setup activates a schema to enable us to make sense of the information, then the punch line does not fit with the schema, causing us to search for another schema that will enable us to make sense of it. Humor is in that way a relief from the mild distress that occurs when we feel "lost" for a moment until the new schema is discovered.

Wyer (1992) suggested that humor involves the simultaneous activation of multiple schemas and the recognition of ambiguity or contradiction. In this sense, humor also involves reinterpreting the setup, considering multiple options, and recognizing one as being less serious than it originally seemed in the context of the initial schema. This theory repeats the sense that there is a "sweet spot" between obvious or obtuse.

Cognitive elaboration arises from the interplay of multiple schemas, as they elicit additional concepts and mental imagery. In this sense, a subtle joke is funnier than an obvious one, in that the listener's mind conjures ancillary information that adds to the humor. But again, there is a delicate balance between too little and too much, particularly when the associated concepts are unpleasant or offensive.

Contrary to this view, one study (Derks 19998) suggested that more people found simple and accessible jokes to be funnier than those that were more subtle and abstract. However, it's speculated that this may be true in aggregate, as fewer people have the intellect to appreciate more subtle forms of humor.

Another study suggested that anticipation is a contributor to mirth, as a more subtle joke or trick causes the subject to recognize the incongruity, wonder for a moment whether it is a joke, and finally decide that it is.

Linguistic Approaches to Humor

Linguists focus on verbal humor, written or spoken, and have shown intense interest in recent years in discovering how humor functions through those media. Linguistic humor lacks a visual component, and deals entirely with words as a medium through which meaning is conveyed, which includes a number of more specific areas of inquiry:

While each of these areas can contribute to the overall understanding of humor, syntax is of the greatest interest: what makes a statement of a story humorous is that the order in which words are presented lead to multiple possible interpretations.

To linguists, the "joke" is a linguistic construct that has a pattern and function. While conversational humor are also linguistic in nature, there is a broader range of patterns rather than a specific formula, and humor may arise accidentally rather than intentionally.

In theory, if a model of humor can be identified that considers the structure and mechanics of a humorous statements, than one should be able to write a computer program that is capable of producing humor - not merely inserting a joke that was provided as input, but in creating original jokes by considering the various meanings of words in context. Computers could also analyze a passage of text to determine whether it was a joke, or at least identify where incongruities exist that might be humorous. In practice, this has never been successfully done.

This is based on the incongruity and reversal theories of humor: when a word is used in a context that makes more than one interpretation plausible, there is the potential for humor. (EN: I would say that there is potential for misinterpretation - humor depends on whether the interpretations are not merely plausible, but probable.)

The "General Theory of Verbal Humor" (Attardo 1991) maintains that humor arises because of the listener, not the speaker. A remark intended as humorous may not be found to be funny, or a remark not intended as humor may be found to be funny, based on the way the listener chooses to interpret it.

In this sense, the person who tells a joke is predicting the strategy that the listener will apply in interpreting the setup - confident that he will be guided to derive a specific meaning, which the punch line can then violate. Should the listener recognize the ambiguity in advance, or should he choose a tactic that leads the setup to be interpreted in the same way as the punch line, there never arises any incongruity to be resolved.

For example, the one-line joke of "take my wife, please" expects the listener to interpret "take" as "take as an example" and later to recognize that it might also mean "take away from me." If the latter interpretation is predicted by the listener in the first place, the sentence scans literally, without any ambiguity.

Linguistic approaches also consider the mechanisms that create humor in in more extended works - i.e., longer narratives than simple jokes whose mechanism is brief and self-contained. Granted, a long narrative may contain a number of "bits" that are funny in isolation, but also convey humor that takes longer to build and longer to resolve.

The Study of Schemas in Humor

One area of study in semantics assesses the "distance" between words. In a basic sense, the English language contains words that are commonly understood to be the opposite of one another (hot and cold, fast and slow, good and bad), with in-between words that reflect a position between the extremes. "Warm" may be taken as the midpoint between the two - but where do word such as cool, chilly, tepid, frosty, or balmy rate on the scale?

Because the meaning of words to a listener do not always correspond with their recorded denotations, and because denotations themselves can be vague, researchers gather large numbers of participants in studies that determine the distance between terms - or more aptly, to consider the way in which concepts are schematized.

From this, there arises the notion that the greater the semantic distances, the more potential for humor exists in effecting an incongruity or reversal. If the setup of a joke implies a character is good, a punch line that causes the listener reevaluate character as evil is funnier than one that causes the listener to reevaluate him as only slightly immoral.

It's additionally considered that certain qualities are assumed of certain concepts. That is, the concept of a "happy child" is readily accepted because children are generally perceived as being happy merely by virtue of being children. The concept of a "sexy grandmother" is inherently incongruous because elderly people are considered to be unattractive - hence the notion that an elderly woman would be sexually appealing is inherently incongruous, hence somewhat funny even in and of itself.

Bizarre figures of speech deliver humor in much the same way. To use the metaphor "graceful as a dove" is figurative, but not incongruous because doves are generally understood to be graceful creatures. But to say that someone is "graceful as a walrus" causes dissonance because a walrus is not associated with gracefulness, and the listener must eventually discover that the speaker used the metaphor to suggest the subject was not graceful in the least.

Semantic distance must follow along a conceptual axis of opposing word-pairs. Where juxtapositions of words are merely incongruous and not opposite, the result is confusion rather than mirth. A phrase such as "graceful as a table" does not make sense as a metaphor nor scan as humor because a table is not considered to be graceful or ungraceful.

Various experiments comparing the schematization of concepts represented by words in no context found a significant correlation to the degree to which jokes that contained those same words were found to be humorous, both as bizarre figures of speech and as simple word pairs (called "pseudo-jokes").

Semantic Priming Techniques

Semantic priming is the process by which a listener selects a schema to interpret future information based on the information he has received so far. In essence, within the first few words of a sentence we decide what the topic is and often predict the latter half of that same sentence is and retrieve the appropriate schemas to interpret the information we expect to receive.

The author suggests that the reaction time "is measured in milliseconds." That is, as soon as the word "elephant" is spoken, the listener has retrieved a schema suggesting its shape, behaviors, habitat, and the like and is prepared to use this knowledge to interpret anything else that is said about the subject.

(EN: neurology supports this measurement, but it is not the only factor in semantic priming because a listener must receive the information first, which can be done only as quickly as a speaker can deliver the message, because he will gather multiple schema based on multiple words rather than a single schema, and then determine which of the gathered schema, and which aspects of them, are likely to be relevant to the rest of the message. With this, the practical time for semantic priming is generally estimated in the range of four to seven seconds.)

Word-completion experiments show the effects of priming: when given letters and asked to guess the word, most subjects have difficulty guessing on the first or second letter, but by the third letter they formulate ideas about what the remainder of the word will be - but their guesses are highly inaccurate. Knowing only "WHI" subjects will guess whisky, whisper, whip, and so on. However, when put into the context of a sentence subjects could very accurately predict the word. That is, hearing "The cat had long w-h-i" predicting that the word "whiskers" is fast an easy, presumably because they had already retrieved the schema for "cat" primed them to limit their guesses to words that pertained to cats. (EN: I would anticipate that even the first letter would be sufficient, "the cat had long w".)

It's further suggested that the schema chosen at the beginning of a sentence or sequence of letters depends on whatever topic the individual happened to be thinking about before the conversation started. (EN: it can likely be extended to suggest that some other stimuli may prime their schema - such as their experience with a speaker. We expect a mean person to say mean things, even before they have spoken a single word.)

The connection between schema priming and humor: the setup to a joke activates certain schema that lead to a predicted interpretation, and the punch line is incongruous to the schema to which the listener is primed, prompting him to reconsider his schema and reinterpret the setup after having heard the punch line, reversing the chronological order of typical linguistic decoding. (EN: Rather elaborate details of experimentation in which a joke was divided into three segments, two for the setup and one for the punch line, and subjects were asked to identify related concepts and schematize them, is presented as support - but it's a tedious account.)

Conversational Humor: Irony and Sarcasm

Much of the research into humor has been based on jokes, largely because jokes are a very structured form of humor: there is a clear setup and punch line, the joke is told the same way every time, and there is no sense of spontaneity or relevance to context.

However, most of the humor we encounter in everyday life is not in the form of a "canned" joke, but takes place in the form of impromptu (and sometimes unintentional) expressions that occur within the flow of conversation. Because it arises in a natural context and is generally not contrived, it cannot be examined consistently for test participants in a laboratory exercise.

As such, conversational humor can only be examined "in the wild," though some formal research has been done in regard to some of the devices used in conversational humor: a participant can be presented with a pun, or asked to read a humorous story, etc.

The device most often considered in formal research is irony, the use of language that is intended to convey the opposite of what it means - such as referring to someone who has done something cruel as "a fine friend" - to determine the manner in which people recognize a statement as being ironic rather than literal.

It's been observed (Giora 1985) that the typical way in which people seek to understand a speaker is in a very literal manner: they take what is said at face value and do not expect it to be meant ironically, applying the interpretation that is most salient to the context of the conversation. Alternate meanings are only considered when the most literal and salient interpretation of a word or phrase does not make sense in the context of conversation (per the previous example, the word "friend" does not match the description of someone who has behaved in a cruel manner).

Because irony requires a statement to be re-interpreted, there may also be a delay in the humor response to an ironic statement. This also leads to the suggestion that a listener may anticipate the most salient definition of a term in the course of a conversation, but does not completely ignore alterative definitions - they are not initially considered, but are merely set aside for a time until the statement has been interpreted, at which point the listener is satisfied he understands the meaning and can ignore the alternative definitions.

Conversational humor also depends heavily upon the listener: he must be listening attentively to what is being said to note that there is an incongruity, and be interested enough in the conversation to attempt to resolve that incongruity to understand the speaker's intention. An attentive listener who can "read between the lines" to recognize when something is implied or not spoken, or can detect when there is something the speaker is deliberately avoiding, can readily recognize and appreciate conversational humor. The individual who lacks or does not apply listening skills will miss the joke completely.

(EN: This calls to mind some of the social functions of conversational humor. A person who inserts a subtle joke into conversation is testing the listener to determine whether he has linguistic competence, is interested in the conversation, and respects the speaker. Where a joke is "missed" at least one of these assumptions is disproven.)

There is some uncertainty over the function of humor in a conversation: where an incongruity is identified, the conversation is redirected to some degree because once the ambiguity is recognized, it is never completely forgotten. The conversation may continue on its original course or the humor may misdirect it, but even in the former instance the humor has been a distraction, if not a permanent diversion, from the topic. Therefore it is argued that the intent of a humorist may in some instances be to control the direction of conversation and move it to some degree away from its original bearings.

Some considerations have been made about the timing of conversational humor, which tends to occur later in a conversation. From a purely functional perspective, a context must be set before it can be violated, such that an incongruous remark at the very beginning of conversation (or at any point before a context is set) is not humorous, but merely confusing.

The exception to this is when a context already exists - the participants in a conversation are continuing a conversation rather than starting a new one, or take for granted that both parties share the same conceptual framework about the subject of the conversation from the onset. (per the previous example, calling a cruel person a "fine friend" does not function as humor unless the listener already considers that person to be cruel - whether in the present conversation, a previous one, or their general impression of that person.)

This can also be environmental, suggesting it's a "wonderful day" when both parties are standing outdoors in inclement weather is an effective use of humor that does not require conversational support to establish a context. This can also be done as a test of whether the listener shares the speaker's perspective - to refer to a politician as "our honest and intelligent senator" will be taken as literal by one who regards that politician as honest and intelligent, or as a joke by one who believes he is not so.

The author suggests (no reference to a specific study) that ironic statements are considered to be less polite than literal statements of a positive nature, but more polite than literal insults. In essence, irony provides a polite way to say something negative.

The Effects of Humor on Cognition

Aside of considering how humor is the result of cognition, cognitive psychology also considers the effects that humor has upon cognition, focusing specifically on creativity and memory.


Many theorists consider there to be a close link between creativity and humor, as humor is itself a creative expression. The mundane mind is not at all playful or inventive, but takes things entirely at face value and seeks logical and practical outcomes. Conversely, the mind that understands and appreciates humor is not focused entirely on the practical, but considers multiple possibilities.

Both humor and creativity require the subject to consider a broader array of possible options, especially those that depart from convention. The mind that merely understands humor can appreciate the multiple options that are presented, but the mind that generates humor can envision those options on its own.

"A large number of studies" have drawn correlations between humor and creative intelligence. The strongest correlation exists between humor and linguistics, as most humor is verbal - but there is also correlations between humor and creativity of other kinds, as language is merely an expression of ideas, such that a person who is clever with words is clever with the concepts they represent.

There is even evidence that humor causes people to be more creative. The mind seeks efficiency and gravitates toward the most obvious interpretation and the most obvious course of action. Humor disrupts this process, and causes people to think more broadly, departing from the most obvious train of thought to consider other possibilities and to perceive the value of options that might, at first glance, seem inefficient.

There is also the notion that humor is associated to positive emotions: a person experiencing anger, fear, or sadness is often seeking the fastest possible escape route from a negative emotional state, in the same way that an animal reacts instinctively, rather than logically, to escape a threat. When the mind is in a casual and playful state, it is able to engage the intellectual capabilities of the neocortex, which is much more effective at planning and envisioning than the primitive threat-response of the limbic system.


Both educators and advertisers have long believe in the beneficial effects that humor has on memory, citing a handful of reasons this should be so:

In a series of experiments (Schmidt 1994), it was found that subjects had better recollection of information when it was presented in a humorous manner than in a prosaic manner. For subjects that received a mix of humorous and non-humorous statements, they had better memory of the humorous material and worse memory of the non-humorous than those who received lists that were entirely humorous or non-humorous.

A follow-up experiment (same researcher) tested recall of imagery - non-humorous illustration and humorous ones - and had similar findings. It was found that subjects were better able to remember and describe the humorous illustrations - but that they recalled fewer details about them than they did of non-humorous ones (any element of the image that was external to the humor was less remembered).

This raises (and answers) the question: if humor aids memory, why then is it often difficult to recall a joke? It is because the subject recalls that something was funny, and remembers what was funny about it, but does not remember the contextual details or the exact wording. Moreover, emotions often defy articulation - a person who is in love cannot often describe the reason they feel that way, but simply is aware of the emotion they experience, and it is likely the same for mirth.

The various evidence presented is "quite convincing" about the link between humor and memory, but also suggests that there is some danger in applying it. Humor has a highlighting effect, causing certain elements to gain greater attention and to be remembered better, but also causes anything that is not humorous to be less likely to be remembered. This may explain the reason that people can often recall the humorous elements of a funny advertisement but cannot accurately recall the brand that was being advertised.

Computational Approaches to Humor

Is it possible to program a computer so that it will generate or understand humor? This potential has largely been ignored by the field of artificial intelligence (AI), though some maintain it is theoretically possible. There is value to instilling humor into machines, to make human-computer interactions more congenial and natural.

It may be that the reason AI has thus far been an unmitigated failure is because the concept of humor has been ignored - not insofar as making a computer "funny" as in giving it the ability to understand the subtle nuances in human communication that would make it a more realistic approximation of human intelligence. Lacking that, AI will continue to be mundane, prosaic, and utterly inhuman.

While there has been a lack of progress, there has been a great deal of pontification on the topic of emotion and humor in AI systems, which suggest that theories of humor are too vague, imprecise, and contradictory and that until a single, universal theory of humor has been proven, there's little point in pursuing the matter. (EN: sounds a bit like sour grapes to me.)

One experimental program was designed to create "punning riddles," which are very formulaic, playing on words or homonyms that function as various parts of speech:

When analyzed by children between ages 8 and 11 (which are the ages in which punning riddles are generally found to be the most funny), some of the system-produced riddles were rated as funny as human-generated ones taken from children's magazines - but in the aggregate were considered to be less funny, as many of them were simply nonsense or prosaic.

That is to say that the computer, loaded with dictionaries and structural rules, could assemble words into a setup and punch line that followed the pattern and rules of a joke but was unable to assess, even with semantic measurements, whether its phrases it generated would be funny.

Humor as Cognitive Play

While cognitive theories explain the way humor functions, they do not address the question of why humor is enjoyable: why do people seek to convey humor, or appreciate when others offer humor to them?

For this, one must look to the emotional and social aspects of humor. Granted, the relationship of cognition and emotion is "a thorny topic" in cognitive psychology because the two have historically been portrayed as opposites to one another.

However, more recent theories of emotion suggest that the two are not as disparate as once imagined: that there is a reason we experience feelings, and that they can often be explained logically. In essence, and emotion is simply a logical shortcut the mind takes to react without thinking - but what we believe has a strong effect on what we feel.

There is also the notion of humor as the pleasure of discovery: in recognizing an incongruity and sorting through the schema to resolve it, those who experience humor gain a brief sense of accomplishment and empowerment. Meanwhile those who express humor are displaying their intellectual power to others, and are gratified in the others' recognition.

Humor is also used to test or establish social connections: if two people find the same thing to be humorous, it implies a similarity in their personal perspectives. In that sense, the pleasure of humor is the pleasure taken from socially connecting and relating to others, and the sense of security and belonging that results.

There is also the evolutionary view of humor as a form of intellectual play, which like physical play is used to sort out hierarchies within a group. In this sense, an individual who offers humor is testing the mental strength of an opponent, and gains a sense of achievement (superiority) when the other party doesn't get the joke, whereas the recipient of humor is defending his social status when he is able to understand the joke. (EN: This can also be a reason for the "social laugh" as a disguise to conceal defeat.)


(EN: This chapter's conclusion summarizes key points, already noted, without adding any new information or perspective.)