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

15 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:


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  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.

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  14. Ralph Schneider

    I figured it out years ago – “your” theory is correct as far as it goes but omits the necessay fourth factor – the element of surprise.

  15. Ralph Schneider

    I figured it out years ago – “your” theory is correct as far as it goes but omits the necessary fourth factor – the element of surprise.