8: Humor and Developmental Psychology

Humor is a complex phenomenon that requires a range of psychological functions: perception, linguistic skills, abstract reasoning, memory, problem solving, creativity, emotion, and more. Although nearly everyone experiences and recognizes humor of some kind, their mental faculties may restrict the kinds of humor they are able to appreciate and produce.

In this chapter, the author means to investigate the development of humor in childhood and into adulthood, as a means to understand how the faculty is developed, and as a measure of adult humor aptitude in adults, given that the sense of humor is more developed in some than in others.

(EN: Scanning ahead, I don't notice that the author suggests a "humor quotient" similar to an intelligence quotient, which would compare a person's actual age to the physical age at which they would have the ability to understand humor. But that seems an interesting idea.)

Developmental psychologists have previously studied the progress of cognitive development in children and adults, and much of this applies to the development of humor, which itself is a cognitive process, and which relies upon the various cognitive skills mentioned above. While this has not been done in pursuit of humor, particularly, it is relevant to the topic.

Smiling and Laughter in Infancy and Early Childhood

Infants begin to smile in their first weeks of life, often in response to being touched or hearing their caregiver's voice. The smile response to visual stimulation follows within a month - generally in reaction to objects in the shape of a face or to an actual human face, particularly one that is familiar to them. It is reckoned this is an instinctual response, designed to encourage others to interact with the infant or provide positive feedback when their interaction is pleasant.

Laughter firs appears after 10 and 20 weeks and becomes a frequent behavior during interactions between the infant and caregivers. Laughter first occurs during physical play (such as tickling or handling) as well as visual play (peek-a-book games are making silly faces) but later extends to a wider range of stimuli.

Between eight months and a year, laughter becomes linked to unexpected or incongruous stimuli, given the child's limited experience and perception. When a caregiver breaks a pattern of behavior or does something unusual, the child laughs. While it cannot be ascertained, it is reckoned that this is due to anxiety that arises because the child cannot understand what is happening and is unsure what to expect - but does not feel threatened (which would provoke a crying response instead).

This is obvious during the common peek-a-boo game played with babies, who make expressions of anxiety when the face of a familiar person is hidden from their view, and laugh in relief when it reappears, provided the person is wearing a pleasant facial expression. One study (MacDonald 1978) found that the child is more likely to laugh when the person playing with them is familiar - a parent or caregiver - than with someone they have seen less frequently or a complete stranger.

These findings show that infants at this stage have begun to develop expectations based on their observations: they know what ought to be, are distressed when it is not as expected, and relieved when it is restored to match their expectations. This closely follows the pattern of humor: a setup that leads to certain expectations, those expectations are then violated, and the incongruity is resolved (sometimes).

A follow-up experiment (Shultz 1976) found that the peek-a-book game did not work when the object that was temporarily hidden bore no resemblance to a human face. To hide and reveal a toy did not result in laughter. This suggests a social context of humor - the game is only funny if played with another person.

The notion that laughter is merely imitative was addressed by a series of observational studies (Nwokah et. al.) that used audio recordings of mothers and their infants. This found that during the first year of life, the frequency of an infant's laughter varied according to the frequency of the mother's - but in the second year the infant's laughter departed from the mother's, stabilizing at an independent frequency.

In pre-school aged children (ages 3 to 5) laughter occurs increasingly in playful interaction with others. This is further underscored by the observation that 95% of laughter occurs when interacting with others, and only 5% occurs when the child is alone. At younger ages, children are more likely to laugh at amusing nonverbal actions (facial expression and body movements), but as they approach age five, children tend to laugh more often at amusing verbal behaviors (comments, stories, songs, or unusual word usage).

In all three age groups, laughter generally occurred in response to intentional humor rather than unintentional events that might be interpreted as humorous. It's also noted that children are more prone to laugh and things they have done or said themselves rather than at the behavior of others. It is expected that children of this age lack adequate social development to understand the intentions of another person (silly or serious), but are aware of their own intent.

It's also noted that children exhibit different qualities of laughter that can be readily identified by the context and vocal qualities:

By observation, patterns are noticeable where specific laughs are associated to specific contexts: chuckle laughter occurs regularly when a child accomplishes something and rhythmical laughter occurs only in a social context.

Humor and Play

Humor is believed to be closely related to play, evolved from the vocalization of chimpanzees during rough-and-tumble play. Human children also laugh at play, and it is believed humor is the application to the same reaction to mental rather than physical stimulation.

Researchers struggle to define "play" though it is generally accepted to mean any activity that is spontaneous and enjoyable, and is carried out for its own sake with no other immediate biological purpose. It is non-serious and activity-oriented (as opposed to goal-oriented).

Humor and play are both enjoyable, and they have similar characteristics regarding motivation, control, and reality. They both involve imagination, occur in safe settings, and establish or reinforce trust in others.

An observational study (Bergen 1998) asked parents to keep a record of events that caused their children to laugh. Most of reported examples tool place in the context of play, or playful moments. Common examples included movement play, clowning, performing incongruous or nonsensical actions, and experimenting with sounds and word meanings.

While humor and play are related, they are not the same thing. Children who imitate the behavior of adults, such as putting on their parent's clothing or pretending to use tools or appliances, this form of play is not considered humorous. However, if her play takes the form of satire (intentionally mocking the behavior of the adult by exaggerating or altering the actions), then it becomes humorous.

It's also questionable whether young children who laugh during play are experiencing humor, or are using laughter to demonstrate a broader range of emotions, or merely encouraging their caregivers to continue whatever is giving them pleasure.

It is theorized (Wolfenstein 1954) that children do not begin to recognize or experience genuine humor until the second year of their lives. Imitative play becomes imaginative play, exploring "what-if" scenarios that include unusual and distortions of reality, but incongruities in earlier years reflects a lack of understanding whereas humor requires them to understand what is "right" and intentionally do otherwise with the intention of causing laughter in an observer.

Cognitively, children began to demonstrate an understanding of symbols and signs at this same age. Symbols enable us to receive or invent information that in ways other than sense-data, and to conceive of possibilities that are not the result of what is seen, but what is imagined. That is to say, that symbolism is necessary to having an imagination.

The process of understanding continues, in which individuals integrate two forms of knowledge: that which they have gained through their own senses, and that which they have gained through their interpretation of symbols (words and language) absent sensory experience. In this way, a child can playfully apply imaginary qualities to known objects, or even introduce imaginary objects, to explore ideas in an abstract manner.

It has also been argued (Pien 1980) that symbolic play and imagination are not necessary for the appreciation of humor. Particularly in young children, laughter results from the experience of something that is incongruous, and does not require them to understand why it is incongruous. This is the reason that children laugh at nonsensical phrases that do not have the same pattern as legitimate jokes or humorous stories.

Ultimately the question of whether humor is present in infants and young children depend largely on the manner in which humor is defined. Though it's likely we can say that humor originates in play, or evolves from playful behavior, and evolves from physical to mental stimulation as cognitive abilities develop.

Humor and Cognitive Development

The information we receive is made meaningful by comparison to the information schema we have developed from experience. When something we encounter matches, or seems similar to, the schema we have in memory, we develop certain expectations - and when those expectations are not met, the experience seems incongruous.

This incongruity is the basis of humor. So to understand humor, we must have the cognitive ability and life experience to form schema to which to compare new information. Our schema develop during the course of our lifetimes, such that things that are funny at one stage of cognitive development are not amusing at later stages, and things that require a fuller life experience to understand are not amusing to anyone who lacks that level of experience.

(EN: This likely also explains the reason that a joke is not as amusing the second time we hear it. We have already encountered and resolved that incongruity, and there is no pleasure in discovery when the novelty has worn off.)

McGhee's Four-Stage Model of Humor Development

Paul McGhee (1979) proposed a four-stage model of humor development in children, which corresponds to general trends in cognitive development.

The first stage of development is "incongruous actions toward objects" and begins at about age two. Children at this age are able to appreciate concepts and have primitive mental schema, and find amusement of playfully assimilating objects into schema to which they do not normally belong. For example, using a banana in the manner of a telephone seems quote funny to a child of this age because he recognizes what a banana is, what a telephone is, and that the two are not interchangeable - but to pretend they are so seems silly and amusing.

The second stage of development is "incongruous labeling of objects and events" and begins early in the third year. At this age, children associate words to objects and find amusement in intentionally mislabeling things. To point to a dog and call it a cat is immensely funny to children of this age, but it requires them again to recognize the object and the word as well as realizing that the two do not match.

The third stage of "conceptual incongruity" also begins around three years of age. Humor in this stage involves the violation of one or more attributes of a concept. For example, a cartoon of a six-legged cow is amusing because the child recognizes the animal, and that it normally has four legs. Children of this age also begin to show a fascination with nonsense words, words that rhyme, and puns that play on similar-sounding words.

The fourth stage is "multiple meanings" and does not develop until around seven years of age. By this age schemas are fairly well-developed, and children know the names and properties of things. They also have a rudimentary grasp of cause and effect and recognize the physical properties of things. They also begin to become less egocentric, and begin to grasp that other people are motivated to take actions and have perspectives that are different to their own. These mental abilities enable children to understand abstract humor based on logical inconsistencies that require inferential thinking.

While McGhee considered this to be the final stage of development, that is carried forward to adolescence and adulthood, it is far from comprehensive, and it is theorized that the forms of humor that this model does not include are developed later in life.

The Role of Incongruity and Resolution

One study (Schultz 1974) presented children in grades 1 through 7 with a series of jokes, some intact and others modified to render the joke into nonsense or a non-funny dialogue. Children in grade 3 and over found the unmodified jokes to be funnier than the others, but the younger subjects were also likely to find nonsense jokes funny. This was further illustrated by interviews in which the younger children could not explain what made the jokes funny, whereas the older ones could readily do so.

Critics of the study suggested that the jokes used might have been a bit above the heads of the younger children, introducing concepts that they were unable to comprehend, such that all of the jokes seemed nonsensical to them. A follow-up experiment (Pien 1976) simplified the jokes and found that the younger children were able to identify incongruity and showed preference for jokes that contained resolution rather than those that were merely nonsensical.

Additional studies also showed that some adults can enjoy jokes that contain incongruity without resolution, suggesting that there is less of a cognitive connection than originally applied. Though it is conceded that participants of all ages find nonsense jokes to be silly, and jokes with a resolution to be genuinely funny.

It was also pointed out that the methodology of the experiment made the test into a sort of game between the experimenter and the subjects, and further suggests that the difference may not be in the concepts communicated by the joke, but in the joke's structure, as children of a younger age also have difficulty following a connected sequence of actions in non-humorous passages.

Humor and Cognitive Mastery

McGhee's model implies that children must have mastered certain cognitive abilities in order to appreciate humor that plays with these abilities in incongruous ways. That is, a child must understand the typical properties of a thing before he can find a joke that plays with those properties to be humorous.

In a study of cognitive development (Zigler 1966) researchers observed the degree to which children in grades 2-5 smiled and laughed, and asked them to explain the meaning of each cartoon. Naturally, the children showed an increasing comprehensive of cartoons as they progressed in age. However, the reactions to the cartoons did not follow the same pattern - the children in grades 2-4 showed an increase in emotional expression, but there was a sharp decrease for the fifth grade children. This was interpreted to mean that the older children understood how humor functioned, but were not actually amused by it.

It was also indicated that there is an inverted-u shaped relationship between the cognitive difficulty of a joke and the ability to comprehend it - suggesting that there is a range in which people find things to be funny. A joke that is too complicated is not understood, whereas a joke that is too simple may be recognized as humor but not found to be amusing.

The author provides details of a few additional studies that supported the latter finding.

Cognitive Development of Irony and Sarcasm

The author has previously stated humor that are context-free and easy to study in the laboratory, but are not representative of the majority of everyday humor that occurs in common conversation. Even in childhood, observational studies show that most humor arises from spontaneous verbal and physical behavior during play and social interactions.

In recent years there has been some research on the development of comprehension of conversational humor, mainly irony and sarcasm. The author reminds the reader of the difference between the two: irony merely implies stating the opposite of something that is obvious, whereas sarcasm adds a bitter tone that is often degrading to someone.

To understand and appreciate these forms of humor, children must have the ability to make complex linguistic and social inferences. They need to recognize that the intended meaning of a statement is not the literal meaning, and recognize what the true meaning ought to be. They must also recognize social and communicative functions of irony in speech: to moderate the implied criticism or praise or to convey humor by subtle means of implication.

A few studies suggest that children do not understand irony until the age of six, before which time anything stated is taken literally. His corresponds with the development of the "theory of mind" in which a person is able to understand the perspectives and motivations of other people, such that a child can both imagine what the other person is really thinking, and recognize that they are intending to be playful rather than serious (without which ability, a joke is perceived as merely a lie).

Children between the ages of five and eight are able to distinguish between a lie and a humorous false statement when they recognize that one character in a comical story knows something that the other one does not.

In one study (Dews 1996) children were shown clips of television programs in which one character makes an ironic or insulting statement to another, then asked to rate them as being mean or funny. Children of ages five and six were unable to perceive the statements as being humorous. Children aged eight and nine found ironic insults to be more humorous than literal ones. A subsequent test of college students also found a preference for ironic insults to be funnier that literal ones.

A second study considered the degree to which humor was found in ironic statements that were subtle or obvious and the degree to which they were delivered with a deadpan or sarcastic tone of voice. The results showed that at all ages, subtle forms of indirect irony are considered more insulting than obvious and direct forms. However, adult subjects found subtle forms of irony to be funnier, whereas children were more entertained by more obvious and direct forms. At all ages, a deadpan delivery made the irony seem funnier than one in which the tone and expression were sarcastic (though the sarcastic tone seemed to convey a sense of annoyance rather than playfulness).

Another study (Harris 2003) tested children of ages five to eight using puppet shows that contained ironic and literal criticisms and compliments. The results generally indicated the children's ability to perceive the mitigating effect of irony on criticism, though recognizing ironic criticism as humor is only evident in the older subjects.

In terms of ironic compliments, the results showed that only a minority of children interpreted the implied meaning, thus it is expected that the appreciation of ironic complements develops at a later age than that of ironic criticism. It is speculated this is because ironic criticism is far more common in daily life, whereas ironic complements are more rare and involve a double-negation, making them harder to understand.

Humor as Emotional Coping

Developmental psychologists have suggested that humor is a mechanism that enables children to better cope with difficult situations and topics. By laughing about issues that normally arouse feelings of anxiety, children feel less threatened and gain a sense of mastery.

In an observational study (Wolfensetin 1954) it was suggested that much of children's humor relates to potentially painful or anxiety-arising topics such as death, violence, punishment, bodily functions, sexuality, and stupidity. Humor makes a parody of delicate subjects, enabling children to feel less awkward or threatened by them.

It's been suggested that humor may be a method of dealing with conflicts arising from social interaction: as children encounter difficult situations in which they deal with mistrust, autonomy, shame, guilt, inferiority, and other situations. One researcher (McGhee 1979) observed that the topics that children make jokes about at different ages are commonly associated to the tension they encounter.

It is conceded that, while a considerable amount of research has examined the role of humor as a coping mechanism in adults, research on children's use of humor for coping is "very limited." Further research is needed to consider the value of humor in coping with various sources of emotional distress, particularly earlier in childhood.

Interpersonal Aspects of Humor in Children

The predominately social occurrence of laughter continues as children progress through elementary and high school when , in addition to play, laughter begins to support a variety of social functions. The inherent vagueness and ambiguity of humor makes it useful for communicating message and influencing others in situations in which a more direct and serious mode of communication might be problematic for a variety of reasons.

In infancy, humorous interactions with parents may play a role of the development of attachment relationships. During toddlerhood, it may be a way of coping with separation anxiety and asserting oneself in the process of gaining more autonomy. During middle childhood, it becomes important to socialization, defining peer groups, communicating norms, and influencing social interactions. Into adolescence, humor begins to be used in negotiating sexual relationships.

These notions remain largely theoretical at present, as little research has been conducted on the social aspects of humor, save for the more aggressive types of humor.

Social Influences on Humor Appreciation

The way in which children laugh is influenced by various aspects of their social situation.

For example, it was observed (Brown 1980) that children laugh more frequently and more expressively when listening to a humorous audio recording when another child is present and laughing than they do in the presence of another child who does not.

A series of humor experiment (Chapman 1973) had children listen to a humorous audio recoding alone, in the company of a child who was listening to a different program (and laughed at different times), and in the company of one who was listening to the same program synchronously. Those who listened to synchronous recordings laughed and smiled more often, and later rated the recording as being funnier than did the other two audiences.

It was also found that children laughed more when the comp[anion was closer, when they were face-to-face rather than side-by-side or back-to-back, and when they were looking at someone who was laughing as opposed to looking at someone who was not.

Teasing Among Children

Children exhibit aggression toward other at an early age. As young as age three, they begin to have aggressive verbal and nonverbal behavior, and it is an inspiration for humor throughout childhood.

By the age of three, boys show a preference for humor that disparages girls rather than boys, and between three and six years of age they enjoy humor that disparages other racial or ethnic groups. Children also begin to laugh at jokes or situations that ridicule others by six years of age.

Teasing begins to evidence itself in childhood, and it's suggested that teasing is a complex form of humor that combines aggression, humor, and ambiguity. It is particularly the ambiguity that enables children to tease others about things that they would not remark upon in a direct way, and to begin to use the "jus joking" defense when others show offense to being teased. They also use teasing in both a friendly and hostile way.

A study of teasing (Shapiro 1991) shows:

The author wraps with the familiar "further research is needed" disclaimer.

Individual Differences in Children's Sense of Humor

Thus far, the development of humor through childhood has been discussed in a general sense, but it stands to mention that not all children develop a sense of humor at the same ages, or to the same degree. The differences in individuals' senses of humor begins to emerge early in childhood and persists through adult life.

Researchers have also considered the reason that some children have the ability to smile and laugh more freely than others, some develop a productive capacity for humor and others don't, etc.

The question is made more difficult to answer by the inconsistencies in the definition of humor - such that individual differences may be diminished by some definitions and accentuated by others. So it's important in any comparison or consideration to evaluate the definitions that are specific to a given study.

Genetic Factors

In recent decade, many studies of twins have provided evidence of genetic influences in the development of personality traits. They are all based on the assumption that twins have the same genetic influences and the difference in behavior between twins is experiential, and that this difference is most exaggerated when twins are raised in different households. In dizygotic (fraternal) twins there is further consideration of genetics when they are raised in the same household.

One study (Nias 1977) considered difference in humor appreciation among 100 pairs of young adult twins, in which they were asked to rate the funniness of a series of cartoons. There was a correlation of about 45% but this did not differ between identical and fraternal twins. From this it was inferred that sense of humor correlated due to upbringing but not genetics.

In a more recent study (Cherkas 2000) 127 pairs of female twins were evaluated on a set of five cartoons, and the results were similar: there was high correlation between both identical and fraternal twins, which did not support the argument for genetic influence.

A third study (Goldsmith 1999) evaluated 302 pairs of infant twins, aged 3 to 16 months, based on laboratory observations of their positive expressions (frequency of smiling and laughter) and negative ones (distress). It's noted that the children's responses to stimuli were more similar when pairs of twins were tested together than when the twins were tested separately, which was interpreted to indicate that genetic, environmental, and social influences all have some bearing on a child's tendency to express positive emotions.

A self-reporting study of twins (Loehlin 1976) meanwhile found greater correlation in identical twins than fraternal twins asked to rate the degree to which they felt they have a good sense of humor. While interesting, this becomes muddled as it measures what is believed to be indicative of a good sense of humor.

In all, the studies into genetic origins or influences on humor have been inconclusive. While it would be a stretch to indicate that a generic connection has been disproven, there has not been evidence to support a definitive statement that it exists.

Family Environment Factors

While a genetic connection has not been established there is sufficient evidence that the influence of parents on a child's development o humor is significant. However, there are different hypotheses as to how this is so, each of which is supported by research:

(EN: Details of the experiments and observational studies follow, but I'm skipping much as the point is well made above.)

Personality and Behavioral Correlation

The author lists a number of studies that investigate the other characteristics of personality and behavior that seem pronounced in children who have a greater proclivity to express and produce humor.

Humor and Aging

Developmental psychologists largely focus on the years between birth and adulthood, though it stands to reason that a person's sense of humor develops throughout their adult lives. There is little research to provide insight into this area, aside of the effects of injury or disease to the brain and its results on cognitive functions.

One study into the cognitive effects on aging (Schaer 1976) mentioned humor specifically, noting that among participants aged 50 to 80 years, greater age was accompanied by less comprehension but greater appreciation of humor. This would seem to suggest older people are able to recognize humor even when they do not understand it.

Another study (Shammi 2003) discovered that older participants (average age 73) are less able to identify the correct punch line to a joke than younger ones (average age 29), though there was not a significant difference in their ability to select a sentence that completes a non-humorous story. The effect is similar, though far less severe, to those with frontal-lobe damage.

In Ruch's study of humor styles (1990) it was observed that older people enjoy humor in which an incongruity is resolved more than they enjoy nonsensical humor - and they also have lower appreciation for humor in which the incongruity is not resolved.

Tests of sedlf-reported humor scores (Thoson 1996) found no significant differences due to age on participants aged 18 to 90. However, older individuals are more likely to admit using humor to cope with stress and are more likely to have a negative attitude of humorous people.

The author's own studies show that older adults are less likely to use humor in an aggressive manner - older women (but not men) will still use humor to self-promote, while both genders decrease in their tendency to use humor to disparage others. Of course, it must be considered that humor is subject to changing fashion, such that a person's humor style may reflect their experience during a different time.