Do other animals have religion?

This TED talk about what makes things funny is quite insightful. He quotes EB White: “Analysts have had their go at humor, and I have read some of this interpretative literature, but without being greatly instructed. Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind.”

it’s a very funny TED talk, though!

I look forward to watching that.

I was thinking recently that the key to humor is a new and unexpected set of circumstances. Many animals have simple curiosity, including us, but the fear impulse would usually seem to be a stronger impetus. Could a sense of pleasure at encountering the unexpected serve to counteract that impulse to a degree, and give us an advantage?

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As it turns out, McGraw does think that it’s a new set of circumstances that violates the norm, as you guessed. It’s an evolutionary adaptation, as you imply.

Neat :slight_smile:

Benign Violation Theory
The Humor Research Lab uses the Benign Violation Theory as its theoretical foundation.

In collaboration with Caleb Warren, McGraw has been developing and testing a general theory of humor called the benign violation theory. The theory builds on work by a linguist, Tom Veatch, and integrates existing humor theories to propose that humor occurs when and only when three conditions are satisfied: (1) a situation is a violation, (2) the situation is benign, and (3) both perceptions occur simultaneously. For example, play fighting and tickling, which produce laughter in humans (and other primates), are benign violations because they are physically threatening but harmless attacks.

A strength of the theory is that it also explains when things are not funny: a situation can fail to be funny because it depicts a violation that does not simultaneously seem benign, or because it depicts a benign situation that has no violation. For example, play fighting and tickling cease to elicit laughter either when the attack stops (strictly benign) or becomes too aggressive (malign violation). Jokes similarly fail to be funny when either they are too tame or too risqué.

According to the theory, a violation refers to anything that threatens one’s beliefs about how the world should be. That is, something seems threatening, unsettling, or wrong. From an evolutionary perspective, humorous violations likely originated as threats to physical well-being (e.g., the attacks that make up tickling, play fighting), but expanded to include threats to psychological well-being (e.g., insults, sarcasm), including behaviors that break social norms (e.g., strange behaviors, flatulence), cultural norms (e.g., unusual accents, most scenes from the movie Borat), linguistic norms (e.g., puns, malapropisms), logic norms (e.g., absurdities, non-sequiturs), and moral norms (e.g., disrespectful behavior, bestiality).

However, most things that are violations do not make people laugh. For a violation to produce humor it also needs to be perceived as benign. That is, it needs to seem okay, safe, or acceptable. Research in HuRL has highlighted three ways that a violation can seem benign: 1) Alternative norms (e.g., one meaning of a phrase in a pun doesn’t make sense, but the other meaning does), 2) commitment to a violated norm (e.g., men find sexist jokes funnier than women do), and 3) psychological distance (e.g., “comedy is tragedy plus time”).

Note: I think that he probably says that sensitive men don’t find sexist jokes funny–empathy that we should be aware of and encourage. Thanks.

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Just spitballing here but I’ll throw some thoughts out there.

Interesting. It makes sense that when something seems threatening that addressing it would be the dominant response. Absent such a feeling, you would be in the mental space where you could find things funny.

I can see this having to do with one’s perceptions of what is appropriate (conscious or more deeply seated). When that is violated, anger or disgust will be in the space. Different people seem to have pretty different perceptions about what will be funny in that sense. In the presence of a real threat though, most people won’t have the inclination to laugh. The real dark humor can come out in any situation though it seems, from some. Humor has its own considerable power in the overall makeup of our psyche.

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Hence the desire to respond with laughter (even if feigned laughter) in the face of a serious challenge by someone. Since genuine laughter communicates ease and secure feelings, it also communicates to someone that “I am not threatened by you” and thus becomes a weapon too among self-identified sophisticates in their contests of wit. So there is that kind of laughter, which is still part of a contest and putting yourself above another. And then there is the higher form of (I will say genuine) laughter of someone just having a good time (because of their pleasure in others and what others are saying) and giving easy laughter as a communal expression of that pleasure. These are the kinds of people you really want at your parties.


Well spoken! I can almost hear the tinkle of glasses and the music of gentle and convivial expressions of amusement :slight_smile:

It’s funny that “expressions of amusement” is the best synonym I could come up with for this kind of laughter. Here’s a sample list: chuckling, chortling, guffawing, giggling, tittering, sniggering, howling, convulsions, fits, hysterics, hooting, cachinnation. None of those quite work :slight_smile:

…and yet they all do somehow! ROTFL.

[I think I’m something of a guffawer, myself.]

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As a kid, we used the solar powered clothesline to dry laundry, and I thought the song was:
Bringing in the sheets,
Bringing in the sheets…


Laundry is always cause for rejoicing at my house.

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