A brief introduction to the benign violation theory of humor

Below I introduce the benign violation theory and discuss a paper, Benign violations: Making immoral behavior funny, that Caleb Warren and I recently published in the August 2010 volume of Psychological Science.

The benign violation theory builds on work by Tom Veatch and integrates existing humor theories to propose that humor occurs when and only when three conditions are satisfied: (1) a situation is violation, (2) the situation is benign, and (3) both perceptions occur simultaneously. A violation occurs when a situation threatens the way that you believe the world “ought” to be. Simply put, something seems wrong. Violations take many forms, ranging from tickling and playfighting to the violations of linguistical norms, conventions, and rules that take place in puns.

There are also many ways to make a violation benign. In the paper, we tested three: 1) A violation can seem benign because of a lack of commitment to the violated norm, such as when people who are not religious laugh when a church gives away a Hummer SUV; 2) A violation can seem benign because of distance from the violation, such as when it occurs to someone else, happened long ago, or doesn’t seem real; and 3) A violation can seem benign because of an alternative interpretation, as occurs in the case of playfighting and tickling. The benign violation theory suggests that primates often laugh when play fighting and tickling because both are mock attacks — laughter signals a threatening situation is okay.

McGraw, A.P. & Warren, C. (2010). Benign violations: Making immoral behavior funny. Psychological Science, 21, 1141-1149. LINK

13 responses to “A brief introduction to the benign violation theory of humor”

  1. Basil Hall

    All these theories are just rehashes of what has gone before. This appears to be close to Veatch’s ideas. None of these theories actually explain the link between the humorous event and laughter. In none is there a plausible mapping through the realms of the
    biological, neurological, physiological, psychological and behavioral.

    I have put forward a hypothesis (and unlike most people I am willing to believe I am wrong) that, as far as I am concerned, fits the facts better than other theories.

    My essay can be found at the site above.

  2. Basil Hall

    I am not sure that my site will show on the message, so here it is again:

    http://sites.google.com/site/basilhughhall/anewtheoryoflaughterandhumor

  3. TEDxBoulder Speaker, Video Game Journalist, and PhD in Planning and Design, David Thomas answers the question, “What makes things fun?” | Peter McGraw

    [...] that David’s answer to the question of what makes things fun is reminiscent of the benign violation theory of humor’s notion of simultaneity. That is, there is something both real and unreal about a [...]

  4. Guest post by Caleb Warren: Humor Theories – The Big Three | Peter McGraw

    [...] (Our lab, HuRL, is investigating an alternative account of humor that suggests humor is elicited by benign violations. Learn about it here.) [...]

  5. Why aren’t The New Yorker’s cartoons funnier? | Peter McGraw

    [...] but if you are familiar with my emerging research on humor with Caleb Warren, you could see how a benign violation account illustrates how a cartoon could go too far or not far enough. On one hand, a cartoon can [...]

  6. Which is more violent? A) The Super Bowl or B) Super Bowl ads? | Peter McGraw

    [...] I believe that the most basic forms of humor are play fighting and tickling. Our theory, the “benign violation theory,” builds on previous work by Thomas Veatch and integrates existing humor theories to predict [...]

  7. Is the Stanford Band funny? | Peter McGraw

    [...] Stanford Band to talk about the band’s (oft infamous) use of humor and how it relates to a benign violation account of what makes things funny. (And when we were done, I went with them on the All Campus Band [...]

  8. Derrick Warfel

    It’s not a bad theory as long as it’s not taken as explaining the SOLE reason for laughter. ie. not all laughter is based on a moral violation. Note the pure non-sensical laughter of infants and children.

    And it’s ok as long as the good doctor doesn’t try to go way beyond the theory to deduce larger conclusions – e.g. there is no laughter in heaven because there is no sorrow – which apparently he has done at times.

    In essence it is part of a larger paradigm of a juxtaposition of odd elements which seem “odd” or “funny” to the beholder. The easiest way to see this is puns. a single word used in two dissimilar contexts. Putting them together creates a non-sensical image or experience in the listener’s mind and the tension between the two is relieved by a laugh. In some cases this may involve benign moral violations or juxtapositions in other cases it may not.

  9. Too soon or too late? | The Humor Code

    [...] Humor Research Lab (aka HuRL) has been using the benign violation theory to examine the issue of timing and humor. For humor to occur, the theory proposes that a situation [...]

  10. Talking to Humor Therapists | Peter McGraw

    [...] yes, I will be presenting the benign violation [...]

  11. Benign violation theory inspired benign violations | Peter McGraw

    [...] I recently gave an Ignite presentation about the Humor Code’s Mad Men experiment.  It was a pretty funny affair –  thanks to some very creative ad folks who were  inspired by the Benign Violation Theory. [...]

  12. Most things are not funny | Peter McGraw

    [...] what makes things funny begin with. Building on work by Tom Veatch, Caleb an I have proposed the benign violation theory, which suggests that humor arises from perceiving something to be wrong, unsettling, or threatening [...]

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    [...] more about the benign violation [...]

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