On Sunday night, BBC’s Horizon is taking a serious scientific look at laughter. Here, one of its participants, Prof Sophie Scott, tells us why some things make us laugh and others don’t.
This Sunday, as part of the BBC’s Sitcom Season, I’ll be appearing with Robin Dunbar, Peter McGraw and Jimmy Carr in a special edition of the flagship science programme, Horizon. The programme has been in development for a while – and has been punted around for even longer – about the science of laughter.
When the idea was picked up, this changed, and before I’d even got my coffee in my first meeting with the lovely Horizon people, I saw one word had been added to the end of the first treatment: the word was “comedy?”
I wasn’t surprised, as comedy, humour and jokes are what people think about when they think about laughter. However, as very neatly demonstrated by the psychologist Robert Provine, laughter is a hugely social phenomenon: we laugh when we are with other people.
This is a huge effect – he found that we are 30 times more likely to laugh when we are with someone else than when we are on our own.
Provine has shown that, indeed, most of it is entirely unrelated to what we could call humour: people laugh at comments and statements like “I might miss my bus” or “I will have another coffee.”
This is because we laugh to make and maintain social bonds with people. When we laugh with someone else, we’re showing we know them, we like them, we’re part of the same social group as them, we understand them, we agree with them.
And other work has shown that when we laugh with people, we are able to feel better about stressful or difficult situations, and that laughing together is a strong predictor of success of what scientists like to call romantic relationships. I have certainly found myself saving up things I think will be funny so I can watch them with my partner – not only will I laugh more if he’s there, but it will feel good to enjoy it with him.
So, what about comedy? Why do we laugh at comedy, if laughter is a social emotion? We definitely do laugh at comedy, though if you look at UK comedy audiences, they will also clap (if they REALLY like a joke). In the US, comedy audiences will cheer and whoop at jokes they really like, or ‘bits’ they are pleased to see.
“Our appreciation of humour is affected by social roles: we will rate jokes as ‘funnier’ if we think they have been told by a comedian than if they’ve been told by a famous person who is not a comedian.”
There are a variety of scientific theories about why we laugh at jokes: the superiority theory, relief theory, violation theories and play theories. The superiority theory suggests that we laugh at things/comments/people because we feel better than them. Classic examples here would be the sort of jokes that are predicated on someone (A hilarious racial stereotype! A woman!) being really thick or really bad at something. I’m not going to grace this with an example but if you can remember the 1970s you may have come across these and indeed, there are still plenty of comedians pushing this shtick.
Relief theory suggests that laughter gets rid of nervous energy and that we laugh when a difficult – maybe a dangerous or a sad situation – is revealed to be OK. Gallows or dark humour could also fit into this category.
Violation theories (and there are a variety of these) generally say that we laugh when something is ‘wrong’ – for example, a social rule is violated – but not wrong in a way that actually harms anyone. I went to a talk by someone on this theory, and he used this Lee Mack skit about men holding each other’s penises as an example of humour through violation of social rules:
A real problem with all of these theories is that they require one explanation for why we find things funny – and like most human endeavours, this is a big ask for any one theory.
Each theory also struggles with examples of humour which do not ‘fit’ – for example, superiority theory explains why bullies find bullying funny, but not why puns are funny. Relief and violation theories can’t explain why ‘silly’ ideas can be funny. For example, in 2014 Twitter user @ladybroseph tweeted:
I can't dance to this. My first husband was killed in a love shack.
— lady broseph (@ladybroseph) July 20, 2014
Which made me laugh like a drain and run around telling everyone I know. I can’t see any relief of tension, or any violations in this, although the humour scientist who gave the talk about violations said it included at least three, the first being a violation of the RULES OF THE LOVE SHACK. I’m guessing those are detailed in the last verse of the song.
Finally, it’s also the case that even in humour, we cannot dissociate the social element from our appreciation of the humour. Our appreciation of humour is affected by social roles: we will rate jokes as ‘funnier’ if we think they have been told by a comedian than if they’ve been told by a famous person who is not a comedian.
If we give someone the role of ‘comedian’ then what we think they’ve said is simply more amusing. And it can be more emotional than this: If we don’t like a comedian, we won’t laugh at their jokes. But if we do like a comedian, I suspect that (just like people we actually know in real life) we will be more likely to laugh.
An example: the BBC sitcom season has come about because it is 60 years since the BBC first broadcast a TV sitcom – Hancock’s Half Hour. My dad was a massive fan of Tony Hancock and I have happy memories of listening to radio repeats of Hancock’s programme with him. After he died, I downloaded a bunch of them, as it was comforting to listen to something that my dad had loved – and as an unintended consequence of this, my son, at the age of eight, became a huge fan of Tony Hancock.
So now I listen a lot to radio programmes that are over 60 years old, and my son laughs and I laugh and I can imagine my dad laughing. And though the writing and the performance is exemplary, and highly influential, I’m almost certainly not just laughing because of the comedy. At least a little bit of the time, I’m laughing because of love.
Horizon: Jimmy Carr and the Science of Laughter is on BBC Two on Sunday, 9pm.
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I am a cognitive neuroscientist at UCL, and I study brains, voices, speaking and laughing. In my spare time I try to turn theory into practice with science based stand up comedy. @sophiescott