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Few behavioral phenomena present as many paradoxical contrasts as does humor. To one person a joke may be explosively funny while to another it may be disgusting or even horrifying. Understanding a joke is an intellectual achievement, yet reflective thought destroys the humor. A joke may be nonsensical and yet contain a profound truth. A witty remark or laughter can express either friendliness and affection or derision and hostility. Indeed, unrestrained laughter may signify either madness or good mental health. Perhaps the most dramatic of the contrasts are the attitudes of thoughtful men concerning humor: for some, like Freud (1905) and Grotjahn (1957), humor is liberating, ennobling, and a creative force, whereas for others, like Plato (Philebus), humor brings out the ugly and the destructive, degrading art, religion, and morals, and therefore should be avoided by civilized man.

Modern theory. Partly because of these protean qualities, humor has been a favorite topic of discourse among philosophers and writers, but it has evoked little serious attention from behavioral scientists as an area worthy of research or theory. There are undoubtedly numerous reasons for this lack of scientific interest in humor, but they are unrelated to its significance in human affairs and its possible contribution to general behavior theory. Behavioral theorists until recently have paid little attention to activities like humor and play, which are not clearly goal directed and which do not fit easily into the usual motivational models of drive reduction or need deprivation. Although this narrow view of motivation is now considered by many as untenable, emphasis on the negative or deprival motives for behavior persists.

White (1963) has attempted to take a more positive position toward motivation by postulating a primary drive: the striving for competence or mastery. This drive, which he calls “effectance,” motivates the organism to explore, manipulate, be curious, play, and enjoy humor. Such a view is consistent with the many theories of humor that emphasize superiority, triumph, self-glory, mastery, and release of surplus energy. Whether or not this broad concept of effectance will prove useful remains to be seen. There is some danger that it is too inclusive in its attempt to place many diverse activities under a single rubric. However, it is clear that a further delineation of a motivational basis for self-rewarding activities continues to be needed.

The work of Berlyne (1960) typifies the attempt to apply a modified and more sophisticated version of drive reduction theory to activities like curiosity, exploration, play, and humor. He proposes that humor springs from an “arousal jag” that arises with the experience of threat, discomfort, uncertainty, or surprise, and then is followed by an event that indicates safety, readjustment, clarification, or release. To Berlyne the arousal involved in humor is not a psychological state but a neurophysiological one, denoting preparatory behaviors in the nervous system. While the language is different, the view is a familiar one, best expressed by Immanuel Kant (1790), who defined humor as “an affection arising from a strained expectation being suddenly reduced to nothing.” Thus to Berlyne and Kant, sudden relief from tension is the key to all humor.

There is little question that laughter will erupt in situations in which there is a sudden relief from anxiety or tension or when the individual aroused in preparation for threat suddenly finds he can relax. But must all situations evoking laughter be fit into this schema? We find, for example, experimental demonstration in the studies of Milgram (1963) that laughter will occur as anxiety is elevated, not reduced. He found that smiling and laughter with occasional convulsive outbursts regularly occurred under conditions of extreme tension in which normal subjects were ordered to administer what they thought was increasingly severe punishment to a supposed victim in the context of a learning experiment. As long as we do not fully understand the essential relationships between the various aspects of humor, for example, anxiety, aggression, surprise, and incongruity, neobehavioral models, even if couched in neurophysiological terms, will be of little help.

The protean character of humor. Humor remains a paradox only so long as one sees it as a simple behavioral process having a single meaning or function, involving a unitary class of stimuli which evoke a linear intensity scale of responses ranging from a faint smile to convulsive laughter. Phenomenologically, we know that this is not so. We know that smiling and laughing may have many meanings. Humor plays a myriad of roles and functions. We also know that the same joke may be enjoyed for different reasons, some of which may be minimally related to the joke’s intent. Studies have found repeatedly that although the intended point of a cartoon was missed, subjects thought the cartoon was funny and attributed the funniness to some tangential detail. Psychotic patients often reacted in this manner; a severely schizophrenic young man laughed at a cartoon by Steinberg portraying a man aiming a gun at an apple on top of his head and remarked, “The guy’s nuts. Why does he have to pop a perfectly good apple? I guess it’s a Mclntosh and he should eat it” (Redlich et al. 1951). In a recent study, children in grades two through five were often unable to comprehend the joke in a cartoon but they would focus on some detail and react as though this detail made the cartoon funny.

The importance of cognition. The fact that the schizophrenic patient missed the allusion to William Tell shows the importance of cognitive processes in the appreciation of humor. Appreciating a joke means that we are able to master the symbolic properties with their multiple figurative and allegorical referents; it is not unlike solving a complex problem. It is the sudden discovery achieved by the reshuffling of these symbols into a surprisingly new relationship which contributes to the pleasure in the joke, a fact thoroughly analyzed by Freud (1905). Part of the mild fun in the double-entendre (“gland: the only thing secretive about a woman” or “man refuses to give up biting dog”) lies in grasping the two meanings. Man enjoys using his mental powers by solving puzzles or problems, inventing things, appreciating jokes, or decoding mysteries.

But the pleasure in humor is more than the exercise of cognitive functions, although there are philosophers who insist that the essence of comic laughter lies in man’s use of his logical powers (Swabey 1961). Actually, an allusion or a double meaning is not the only way of making a joke, but it is plainly one of a number of techniques which can contribute to its structure. Other devices like incongruity, nonsense, condensation, plays on words, and exaggeration are all cognitive functions which make up the joke façade. As Freud (1905) pointed out, these same techniques make up dreams as well as jokes and are characteristic of the primitive modes of childhood thinking.

Regression in the service of the ego. Humor, then, like dreams, may be seen as a regression to infantile forms of thinking and acting, and it is partly the momentary freedom from the restraints of logical and realistic thinking that is gratifying. Freud concluded that humor involves a partial regression which is controlled by the ego and is in its service for pleasure rather than for defense. Kris (1952) has elaborated on this notion of “regression in the service of the ego,” applying it particularly to the creative process. Recent interest in creativity has further pointed up this relationship with regression. The likelihood that the creative process utilizes more primitive and unregulated forms of thinking has been suggested by a number of investigators. Barron (1957), for example, has shown in a number of studies of the creative personality that originality is associated with the ability to regress. Wild (1962) found that a group of creative art students was able to shift more easily into primitive and unregulated modes of thought than other groups and derived more pleasure from this shift. The notion of adaptive regression as a basic condition in humor and the creative process is proving fruitful to theory and research.

Freud saw the regression in humor, as in dreams, play, and in literature, as a functionally adaptive mode of withdrawal from reality into a self-made world. The importance to adaptive ego functioning of the capacity to withdraw voluntarily from reality into an imaginary world can be seen in such eagerly pursued pleasures as play, sports, humor, sleep, intoxicated states, and literature. Psychodynamically, neuroses and psychoses represent similar regressive detachment from reality, but they are pathological and involuntary: they do not function for ego gratification but are attempts to cope with conflict and anxiety.

The humor illusion. One can conceptualize the enjoyment of humor as resting on the participation in the humor illusion, where the rules of logic, time, place, reality, and proper conduct are suspended. The make-believe world of the humor illusion is analogous to that found in art—the aesthetic illusion (Kris 1952)—in play, games, and literature, where the metacommunication “this is for fun” gives license to share in the disregard for reality and propriety. Aggression, obscenity, and nonsense are for the moment permissible. From the clumsy pratfalls and antics of the clown to the comedy on television, the sharing of the comic illusion liberates the audience from the procrustean demands of reality [seeAesthetics; Fantasy].

By the achievement of these self-controlled illusions, man is able to soar with his imagination far beyond the confines of reality, whether in the form of a comedy, a novel, a poem, a dream, a painting, or a sculpture. These expressions of imagination may all be based upon common motivational forces and universal fantasies, but, as Freud postulated, their form and language are different.

The psychoanalytic theory. From the psychoanalytic viewpoint, then, humor gives pleasure in two independent ways:

(1) Joke techniques “aim at deriving pleasure from mental processes” and permit regression to infantile modes of thinking, feeling, and acting. The momentary relief from the need to be logical, rational, moral, and realistic is gratifying. Freud ingeniously demonstrated this source of pleasure by translating jokes into everyday language, thereby destroying the humor.

(2) The hostile or sexual purpose of humorous stimuli is gratifying because prohibited wishes originating in the unconscious are momentarily permitted release. The anxiety which normally accompanies the expression of these impulses is reduced or made superfluous by the structural characteristics of the joke that disguise or mitigate the impulse. Humor is consummately a social process and as a shared experience originating with someone else facilitates the regression and further alleviates the anxiety.

Thus, the joke serves as a disguise for the forbidden wish that slips through with little critical scrutiny. In fact, reflection penetrates the disguise and destroys the humor: explaining a joke spoils it. There appears to be some experimental evidence which suggests that during the appreciation of a joke or a cartoon critical judgment and realistic thinking are weakened. In a recent study it was found that college students judged aggressive humor significantly less aggressive while they were enjoying it as humor than when they judged it some time later for aggressive content.

The psychogenesis of humor. It should not be inferred that cognition is assumed to be inherently antithetical to humor, for clearly cognition not only is the mediator of this complex psychological process but also contributes to the pleasure. Understanding a joke is a challenge, and “solving” it is a source of satisfaction. Thus, when jokes are too obvious, they lose their punch. It has been found that as children developed intellectually, their enjoyment of humor depended upon increasingly more difficult jokes. Cartoons which made fewer cognitive demands were considered to be less funny than those which were more of a challenge to comprehension. With cognitive and language growth new and more complex modes of humor expression appear, particularly as symbols and words are elaborated and extended. There is thus an apparent error in conceptualizing sophisticated comedy and satire in the same manner as the stimuli that evoke the baby’s first smiles. Indeed, little has been done to trace the development of humor from the earliest manifestations to the extremely complex social phenomena we encounter in adulthood.

Smiling and its development. As one of the earliest recognizable responses of the newborn infant, the smile has been identified as being in the beginning an innate reaction to pleasurable tactile and organic stimulation. Although the course of humor development has been a much-neglected area, the investigation of the baby’s smile has been most intensively pursued. This great interest in these first expressions of pleasure no doubt springs from the recognition that they usher in the social development of the child and demonstrate the fundamental principles and processes of man’s psychological growth. Spitz considers the appearance of the smiling response as the beginning of the organization of the ego, with the inception of thinking, reality testing, and object relations (Spitz 1959; Spitz & Wolf 1946). The adequate stimulus and the expressive meaning of the early smiling responses have challenged many investigators, no doubt because they are the harbingers of all the sociopsychological processes and affects that characterize the adult.

If scientists are in a quandary about the meaning of the baby’s first smile, most mothers are not and attribute the smile to the child’s sociability. Notwithstanding mothers’ protests, however, the very first smiles may well be, as Schneirla (see Conference … 1955) maintains, nonspecific facial responses to low intensity introceptive stimulation, e.g., gas. However, the importance of the configuration of the human face as the adequate stimulus for the early smile has been amply shown by many investigators (for example, Spitz 1959). After the fifth month only familiar faces are adequate. There is consensus that the development of smiling is a paradigm of the social development of the child. The emotional contact and interaction inherent in the smile is an intrinsic and vital factor in all communication [seeInfancy].

Laughter and its development. The ontogenesis of laughter differs from that of smiling, most notably because laughter retains some characteristics of a partially involuntary convulsive reaction. That laughter never becomes fully controllable is evidenced by the fact that deliberate effort to restrain it only enhances the disposition to laugh. Furthermore, laughter is most easily evoked when ego control is impaired, as in intoxicated states, and when the brain has been damaged. Cases of pathological involuntary or forced laughing under the slightest stimulation are numerous in the neurological literature. Initially, the infant laughs in response to rhythmic and unexpected movement, later to tickling, and eventually to teasing situations like the game of peekaboo. According to Jacobson (1946), where the laughter-producing stimulus is most simple and primitive, the laughter is more expressive only of “pure uncontrolled motor pleasure.” With growth, laughter becomes a social response integrated into the dialect of affective communication. But the sudden relief from great tension remains capable of eliciting laughter. Laughter differs from smiling not only in the intensity of the pleasurable affect expressed by much of the body but as a social response as well. Generally, the individual, by laughing, shows that he is caught up emotionally in the social situation, whereas, with a smile, he communicates a greater detachment and ego control. Cultural and social factors, too, seem to play a more significant role in the expressive style of laughter.

Humor as affective communication. But it is to be noted that both smiling and laughter, in all their expressive variety, transcend cultures and ontogenetic development as affective communication. These two types of expression are among the most primitive and basic interactions between people. Furthermore, we see that affects, including humor, are more effectively communicated by expressive movements, facial expression, and gestures than by language.

It is as humor that smiling and laughing not only communicate many diverse emotions but contribute to their mastery as well. But this mastery is not always successful, as is evidenced by ubiquitous experiences of displeasure and disgust to some humor. Kris (1952) has called this quality of humor its “double-edged” character. Responses to humor of displeasure and anxiety rather than of pleasure are most readily seen in psychiatric patients, who seem to be particularly vulnerable to the disturbing qualities of humor, especially when they are too thinly disguised (Levine & Redlich 1955; Levine & Abelson 1959; 1960).

The development of a sense of humor. We know little about how the child’s sense of humor develops in conjunction with psychological and social growth. In the absence of systematic studies, we can only conjecture from anecdotal observations about the changes in humor behavior in relation to cognitive and emotional development. Humor, arising out of the play situation, clearly offers the growing child, while he is subjected to increasing demands and prohibitions, indirect outlets for the expression of his angry and sexual feelings and anxieties. By claiming “this is a joke” or “this is play,” he can be naughty, talk bathroom talk, tease, and poke fun. Wolfenstein (1954) maintains that indirectness of expression is associated with developmental phases of the joke facade; impulses must be gratified but the child seeks to disclaim responsibility for them. As an illustration of this process, Wolfenstein describes a sequence of dirty jokes of children from 4 to 11 to demonstrate the increasing complication of the joke facade. Excretory activities are primary themes. Wolfenstein considers the development of aggression in children’s humor as following a somewhat different course from sex and excretion. Wolfenstein’s observations point up the fact that the development of humor seems to follow the course of the normal physical, intellectual, and emotional development of the child. The humor a child enjoys is related to the level and phase of its growth and is intimately associated with its mastery of activities. As Kris (1952, p. 213) aptly put it, “What was feared yesterday is fated to appear funny when seen today.” The enormous importance of play and humor to children is sufficient proof of the need for understanding of their psychogenesis from simple undifferentiated behavior patterns to complex psychological processes.

Phylogenetic roots. When we talk about humor we usually think of it as an adult activity which emerges fully developed in man. We tend to disregard the biological and phylogenetic roots from which humor arises. In man, we overlook the primitive origins of humor as simple reflexlike reactions to specific stimuli. The phylogenetic gap betweeen man and the animals in respect to humor is apparently so great and unbridgeable that humor in man is viewed as an emergent phenomenon. Behavioral scientists acknowledge the validity of the most fundamental principle in biology, evolution, but completely ignore it in humor theory and research. Actually, the evidence, unsystematic and naturalistic as it is, strongly indicates that animals do possess primordial signs of a sense of humor, with the capacity to communicate pleasure by facial and bodily expressions which seem to be precursors of smiling and laughing (Darwin 1872; Yerkes & Yerkes 1929; Köhler 1917). Many of the higher animals are tireless in their teasing and their playing of mischievous pranks, being keenly aware of the importance both of surprise and of catching their victims unawares. Monkeys love to engage in clowning and funny posturing for the appreciative laughter of their human audience. The assumption of the humor illusion discussed above is clearly demonstrated in these antics, and the license of the mischief they undertake and the fun they have doing it attest to it.

Aggression and humor. It is out of these forms of teasing, pranks, and poking fun that children also develop their sense of humor. In the course of this development, aggression is an important component of the humor process, whether it is expressed as tickling, teasing, kidding, poking fun, being witty, or making wisecracks. Since aggression is such an important factor in humor, it has perhaps been more extensively studied than any other. A number of studies have shown convincingly that people who are generally aggressive or are easily aroused to anger tend to prefer hostile humor (for example, see Murray 1935; Byrne 1956; 1961; Strickland 1959). Attempts to demonstrate quantitatively that the greater the aggressive feelings the more hostile humor is appreciated have led to contradictory findings (Strickland 1959, Byrne 1956; 1961). Most studies relating humor and aggression are derived from psychoanalytic theory and are based upon the assumption that an increase in aggression which typically must be repressed leads to increased appreciation of humor as an outlet.

Perhaps a more important implication derived from psychoanalytic theory is that the enjoyment of aggressive humor leads to a cathartic reduction in the intensity of the aggressive feelings. Porr (1961) was not able to demonstrate a cathartic effect with sexual humor following sexual arousal, although Strickland (1959) found increased appreciation of sexual cartoons following sexual arousal. Singer (1964) was able to demonstrate that the enjoyment of aggressive humor led to a cathartic decrease in aggressive feelings. This experiment was conducted with Negroes during the summer of 1963 when the race conflict was of national concern. Singer first aroused strong aggressive feelings in Negro subjects by playing tape recordings which described the cruel treatment of integrationists in the South as well as a speech by a militant segregationist justifying segregation on the grounds that Negroes are genetically inferior. The subjects were then exposed to hostile anti-segregationist humor and neutral humor from segments of recorded performances by a well-known Negro comedian. He found that the arousal communication in fact did evoke strong aggressive feelings as well as anxiety. There was a significant reduction in aggressive feelings and anxiety following the hostile humor. The neutral humor had no effect [seeAggression, article onpsychological aspects].

Humor as a social process. The study mentioned above suggests the potential fruitfulness of research on the role of humor in relation to social issues. The importance of humor as a molding force in all societies seems to be appreciated mainly by those who apply it in advertising and entertainment. Several historical examples may serve as illustrations. Many have noted that Cervantes with his classic Don Quixote was able to laugh out of existence the ridiculous posturing of medieval chivalry. Thomas Nast, in 1871, with just a few cartoons singlehandedly brought about the downfall of the notorious Tweed ring (Becker 1959, pp. 299-300). During the blitz of World War II the morale of the English was greatly strengthened by the sudden eruption of joking at the time of peril. Perhaps the most dramatic example of humor shaping history was reported by Franklin D. Roosevelt; at the Teheran meeting in 1943, he was able to melt the icy suspiciousness of Stalin and win him over by cracking jokes at Churchill’s expense (Perkins 1946, p. 84).

Humor not only taps basic personality variables, as evidenced by the numerous studies with humor tests, but the popular humor of a people often expresses most clearly many of its concerns, conflicts, and aspirations (Hes & Levine 1962). Yet we know little that is fundamental about national and ethnic differences in humor behavior, although striking contrasts in patterns and ease of joking and laughter are familiar. While these differences are largely socially determined, there are archetypes of affective communication, laughter and joking, that transcend cultures and epochs. This fact is illustrated by the hilarious laughter evoked by Charlie Chaplin among the most primitive tribes of Africa. Completely in pantomime, he was able to convey the humor of certain family relationships which the tribesmen understood immediately (Grotjahn 1957).

The sharing of a humor experience by a group represents a pact between the participants to suspend for the moment the ordinary rules of conduct, logic, and speech. As Freud put it ([1905] 1960, p. 149), humor “is an invitation to common aggression and common regression.”

Although the normal demands of propriety are given up, the social situation in humor creates its own rules of interaction based upon status, intimacy, and purpose. Goodrich, Henry, and Good-rich (1954) studied systematically the joking and laughter of a psychiatric staff conference. They found that laughter and joking served a variety of important social functions, such as promoting solidarity, freeing individuals to disparage others, reducing felt anxiety, and acting as a safety valve for divisive tensions. They concluded that the investigation of humor is just as valuable for an understanding of social processes as it is for an understanding of attitudes and feelings. In two comparable studies, Coser (1959; 1960) investigated the joking and laughter of patients and staff in a mental hospital. She also found that humor allowed its participants a number of functions, including mutual reinterpretation of their experiences, entertainment, reassurance, and communication; it also served to convey their interest in one another, to pull the group together, and to strengthen its structure.

Institutional humor. Since humor serves so many social functions, nearly every society has developed institutional forms of humor, primarily to serve as methods of social release and regulation. For example, in a study of ritual clowning Levine (1961) has shown that among many of our American Indians, like the Hopi, who are normally very reserved and proper, the ritual clown is a highly respected individual, yet in his grotesque comic antics he is permitted to violate nearly every social taboo, including incest. By the assumption of the illusion of humor, the clown and the participants in his rituals are able to throw off ego restraints and regress to the most archaic and infantile levels without undue consequences. This socially approved gratification is an example of regression in the service of the ego and occurs without anxiety or guilt.

The joking relationships of many primitive cultures have long been recognized by anthropologists as performing a crucial function in defining and maintaining certain kinship relationships. Brandt (1948) confirmed the generally held hypothesis that these relationships are expressions of some potential sexual relationships within kinships. Levine has shown that this form of institutionalized humor is typical in reducing the tensions of interpersonal relations (unpublished). The joking relationships were seen as one of the means used by the culture to provide external controls for the sexual and aggressive urges that are most likely to seek expression in the violation of social taboos. By the formalized joking behavior, these tabooed wishes are channeled and relieved in acceptable ways. Again, by the assumption of the humor illusion, taunting and poking fun are treated as a joke, whereas under reality conditions such ridicule could lead to suicide or homicide. Antithetically, when the humor illusion is not present, many anthropological examples exist of the extreme reactions of shame and disgrace suffered by individuals who are publicly laughed at.

Ridicule and satire are also forms of humor which often become institutionalized. Elliott (1960) studied the extraordinary powers of satire in many cultures, particularly “shame” cultures where the worst possible experience is to be laughed at publicly and where suicide is even considered to be appropriate under such circumstances. Elliott showed how great magical powers were attributed to the fool or the satirist who could be very frightening and how extreme measures to appease him often were taken. A dramatic example of such an institutional form of humor is shown among the Greenland Eskimos, where quarrels are resolved by a duel with laughter. Each contestant, armed only with a drum which he uses as an accompaniment, recites humorous insults and obscene jokes ridiculing his opponent. The duelist who wins the most laughter from the audience is the victor. The loser is profoundly humiliated, often going into exile.

It is clear that society, by tradition and experience, knows the powers of humor in shaping human affairs. But humor is inextricably bound to both an inner and an outer freedom, and the view that humor gives license hardly does justice to its potential as a liberating force. As Worcester expressed it, “The intellectual, critical spirit that attacks pretense and acts as the watchdog of society is the comic spirit” ([1940] 1960, p. 7). Where cultures fear freedom of expression and rigidly demand conformity, humor is repressed, and the role of the humorist is dangerous. But, nonetheless, humor provides some immunity and permits freedoms otherwise proscribed. Many have perceived this fact. For example, Freud stated, “In every epoch of history those who have had something to say but could not say it without peril have eagerly assumed a fool’s cap. The audience at whom their forbidden speech was aimed tolerated it more easily if they could at the same time laugh and flatter themselves with the reflection that the unwelcome words were clearly nonsensical” ([1900] 1953, p. 444).

Jacob Levine

[Other relevant material may be found inDevelopmental psychology; Literature, article onthe psychology of literature; Psychoanalysis.]


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Humor is such an integral part of the human psyche that philosophers and other intellectuals have long been fascinated with its origins in and its effects on the human brain. Several early theorists have provided subject matter for continuing observation and debate. The Greek word chumoi means "juices," and the ancient Greeks used the word, from which we get the English humor (as well as humid ), to refer to the bodily fluids of blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. The amount of these fluids and how they happened to be mixed in a person's body was assumed to determine that person's disposition or temperament. When authors, playwrights, and comedy performers create eccentric characters, they are going back to this old idea of some people being extremely bilious, phlegmatic, sanguine, or jaundiced.

Related to this idea of bodily fluids is a belief that humor is good for one's health as reflected in the Book of Proverbs: "A merry heart doeth good like a medicine; but a broken spirit drieth the bones" (17:22). In 1979 Norman Cousins, a talented writer and former editor of the Saturday Review, popularized the wish-fulfilling idea that laughter could reduce pain and release healing chemicals into people's bodies. While the idea caught the fancy of the general public on a worldwide scale, the twenty-first century's thoughtful researchers are asking questions about possible confusions between causes and effects. For example, even if well-documented evidence could be collected to show that people with a sense of humor live longer, it might be that they have a sense of humor because they are healthy and things are going well. Along the same lines, it might be that hospital patients who are pleasant and find things to laugh about will get well faster than grumpy patients because their pleasant personalities attract a broader support group and make doctors and nurses more willing to spend time with them.

Release or Relief Theory

The subjects that people joke about are likely to be things that make them feel unsure or uncomfortable, as with questions about religion, politics, sex, and ethnic differences. People joke about these subjects as a way of releasing feelings of tension and also as a way of sending up trial balloons. If they say something that does not go over well, they can backtrack and hide behind the cliché, "I was only kidding."

At a 1984 humor conference held at Arizona State University, Robert Priest, a psychologist at West Point, reported on his Moderate Intergroup Conflict Humor (MICH) theory. He agreed that for people to be inspired to create a joke they must feel some tension, but he argued that joking will relieve only moderate levels of tension. If groups or individuals are feeling strongrather than moderatelevels of tension, they will feel frustrated rather than satisfied by jokes. He illustrated his point by showing how history is filled with jokes about the so-called battle of the sexes, but in the late 1970s and the 1980s, as the feminist movement developed and hostilities between men and women increased, sexist joking was no longer viewed as humor. Instead, it was viewed as aggression, and those who told sexist jokes were taken to court and punished for creating hostile workplaces.

A related way of explaining this idea that people need some distance from a problem before they can find humor in it is the statement that "tragedy plus time equals humor." James Thurber has been credited with this observation, but many people, including Steve Allen and Bob Hope, have commented on the idea. After the September 11, 2001, tragedy, it was a topic of general public discussion when comedy clubs and late-night comedians took time off.

Superiority Theory

Conflicts over the censorship of humor go back at least to the fifth century b.c.e., when Plato expressed the idea in his Republic that jokes and humorous incidents should be removed from stories about the gods before they are presented to young people. Plato's idea was that if children were amused by the gods, they would feel themselves superior and hence would lose respect.

Several centuries later the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes spelled out more clearly the idea that humor is an expression of superiority. In his 1651 Leviathan, he defined humor as "the sudden glory arising from the sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others." In the seventeenth century Blaise Pascal, a French scientist and philosopher, proposed, "Nothing produces laughter more than a surprising disproportion between that which one expects and that which one sees." In 1750 the Scottish philosopher Frances Hutcheson further developed what has come to be known as the incongruity theory. In his Reflections upon Laughter, Hutcheson pointed out that people do not go to asylums to laugh at the "inferior" beings, nor do they laugh at animals except when they resemble human beings. Even when someone slips on a banana peel, observers laugh not because they feel superior but because of the incongruity between expectations and reality.

Incongruity Theory

In 1790 the German philosopher Immanuel Kant in The Critique of Judgment focused on the requirement of surprise when he claimed that laughter is an emotion that arises from a strained expectation suddenly reduced to nothing. William Hazlitt, in his 1819 Lectures on the Comic Writers, credited laughter as coming from the incongruity that results when one idea disconnects or is bumped up against another feeling. Arthur Schopenhauer agreed in 1844, when he explained in The World as Will and Idea that laughter is a way of acknowledging an incongruity between the conceptions that listeners or viewers hold in their minds and what happens to upset their expectations.

The incongruity theory is especially powerful in explaining humor across different genres, including accidental humor and humor in nature. Some of the most famous artists of the twentieth century, including Marcel Duchamp with his 1912 Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, surprised and amused (and sometimes offended) the public by breaking with the expectation that an artist's job was to faithfully re-create items as seen by the human eye. Playful dance companies and playful musicians startle audiences by suddenly changing their patterns, as did Franz Joseph Haydn (17321809) in his Symphony no. 94, also known as the Surprise Symphony. Haydn interspersed fortissimo chords into soft repetitive sequences to wake up slumbering audiences. Designers of theme-park hotels and of much of the community art that decorates modern American cities play with surprise and incongruity. Even comedians who tell stories in sets of three (two to establish a pattern and one to break it) are relying on surprise and incongruity.

Scatological humor is incongruous in that it "unmasks" people as it reminds them of their animal nature. This was one of the ideas expressed by Sigmund Freud in his 1905 Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. Freud viewed the jokes that people told as a window to their minds. He thought that jokes were more likely to come from the id or subconscious, while people's other communications come from the superego, where they are refined by a public consciousness. Freud's work with jokes and his belief that humor is basically tendentious and hostile is not as respected as is his other work because modern critics, especially feminists, point out that the source of his jokes (his patients) were far from being a typical sample. Other critics reject the idea that jokes are formed in the subconscious in the same way that dreams are.

The one concept that the general public recognizes from Freud's work is that of the Freudian slip. These are verbal mistakes that people make, which Freud said revealed what they really wanted. In actual conversations, Freudian slips may or may not reveal inner desires. Sometimes they are simply pronunciation or spelling errors, as with the examples that Richard Lederer collected for his popular Anguished English (1987). On the other hand, when creative writers put Freudian slips into the mouths of their characters, their intention is to communicate something about the speaker's personality. Norman Lear was a master at this when in the popular television show All in the Family (19711979) he had Archie Bunker reveal his lack of education and his xenophobic tendencies with such phrases as "Blackberry Finn," "pushy imported ricans," "wel-fare incipients," and "the immaculate connection."

Wit, or Derisive Humor

The French philosopher Henri Bergson in his Le rire (Laughter, 1911) made the point that wit or derisive humor is a universal corrective for deviancy in the social order. He softened the idea of overt hostility by saying that the creators of wit undergo "a momentary anesthesia of the heart" as they poke fun at the actions of someone. According to Bergson's point of view, wit is a tool of satire in that its purpose is to bring about change. Such thinkers and writers as Ambrose Bierce, H. L. Mencken, Ogden Nash, Dorothy Parker, Will Rogers, Carl Sandburg, George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain, Artemus Ward, and Oscar Wilde used their wit to focus attention on the kinds of behavior they thought inappropriate or damaging to society as a whole. Most of the twenty-first century's editorial cartoonists and late-night comedians use wit for similar purposes as they criticize changing social, sexual, religious, and political mores.

John Simon in Paradigms Lost describes wit as "aggressive, often destructive (though one hopes, in a good cause), and almost always directed at others." He compares it to humor, which he describes as "basically good natured and often directed toward oneself, if only by subsumption under the heading 'general human foolishness'" (p. 72).

Simon's description of self-deprecating humor as being "basically good natured" is important in understanding why members of ethnic groups can tell jokes about themselves but get offended when someone from outside the group tells the same joke. When a person is inside a group and clearly identifies with that group, then the telling of a joke about the group usually falls under the category of good-natured encouragement for group members to think about changing their ways. Henry Spalding in his Joys of Jewish Humor (1985) says that many Jewish jokes come in the form of "honey-coated barbs" at the people and things loved most by Jews. While they verbally attack their family and friends as well as their own religion, they do it with a great sense of affection. A joke teller from outside of a group has little or no influence on group beliefs and actions and so by telling such jokes is cementing negative stereotypes rather than bringing about changes.

Christie Davies, who has collected and studied jokes across different cultures, as has the cultural anthropologist Alan Dundes, explains that there is great satisfaction in assigning a negative trait to someone outside of one's own group. Placing negative traits far away from oneself is satisfying because it frees the joke tellers from having to think about whether these characteristics are pertinent to their personalities. The comedy writer Max Shulman, in a 1982 talk at Arizona State University, said something similar when he explained that if one of his stories makes a reader say, "I know someone like that," the reader is amused and laughs. But if the story is so on target that the reader says, "Oh, no, that's me!" the reader is not amused.

Other Views

While scholars still believe in theories of superiority and hostility and of surprise and incongruity, the twenty-first century's mass media provides the world with so many different kinds of humor that few scholars try to make observations about all humor. Instead, they study humor to gain insights into their particular areas of expertise. For example, in They Used to Call Me Snow White but I Drifted: Women's Strategic Use of Humor (1991), the feminist scholar Regina Barreca uses examples of women's humor to illustrate how a group's humor is shaped as well as evaluated according to the roles that the members play in society. Henry Louis Gates did something similar in The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (1988) by showing how African-American slaves developed double entendre trickster signifiers because they were denied the use of normal and private communication.

For obvious reasons, performers, comedians, public speakers, and advertisers are interested in the features or the characteristics of humor. They want to know what makes people laugh so that they can create and re-create such situations. Rhetoricians and teachers of writing are also interested. Mary Ann Rishel, a professor in the Department of Writing at Ithaca College, teaches a class in comedy writing and has authored a book on the subject. Her idea is not to prepare students to move to Hollywood or New York to join comedy writing teams. Instead, she wants to use the pleasures of humor to help students develop the skills needed for most kinds of writing: originality of vision, a keen eye for observation, the inclusion of telling details, and most importantly, succinctness.

The historian Joseph Boskin collects joke cycles, what he calls comic zeitgeists, and uses their popularity as data for revealing Americans' preoccupations and attitudes. He concludes his book Rebellious Laughter (1997) with "Tattered Dreams," a chapter about how "the roseate years of expansion" (p. 180) that followed World War II collided with such technological failures as the meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, the radioactive explosion at Chernobyl, the loss of the Challenger space shuttle, and such oil spills as that of the Exxon Valdez. These catastrophes "overwhelmed sensibilities from the late 1970s into the 1990s," and the jokes were as extreme as the events (Boskin, p. 181). They offered "the specter of a totally irrational universe," where the only defense was to engage in what has been labeled "a hellish laughter" (Boskin, p. 190).

Modern literary critics often focus on this kind of humor as they work with deconstructionism, postmodernism, and magical realism. They have long defined satire (which often includes elements of irony and wit) as humor designed for the specific purpose of convincing readers and viewers of the need for some kind of action or a change in attitude and beliefs. On the other hand, black humor or dark humor (also referred to as gallows humor, absurd humor, existentialism, and film noir) illustrates the futility of looking for easy and neat answers to the tragedies of life. In such humor, the lines between fantasy and reality and between tragedy and comedy keep shifting. People laugh because they do not know what else to do. The laughter is itself a testament to the strength of the human spirit in showing that people can laugh in spite of bewilderment, death, and chaos.

Linguists, especially computer programmers working with artificial intelligence and translation, study jokes because their abbreviated scripts leave listeners to fill in the mundane details that "go without saying." Many jokes provide an even greater challenge for computers because they are designed to lead listeners to interpret the story along mundane lines, but then comes the climax or the punch line, which makes listeners laugh in surprise as they realize they have been led "down the garden path." The linguist Victor Raskin at Purdue University is working to program computers with the ability to bring in a myriad of cultural references while simultaneously testing possible interpretations so as to arrive at the one that is "funny." In his book Semantic Mechanisms of Humor (1985) Raskin distinguishes between what he calls bona fide scripts and joke scripts. Joke scripts differ from stereotypes in that a stereotype is an idea that many people seriously believe in and act on, while joke or comic scripts are more literary than sociological or political. They are amusing ideas that serve as the nucleus for folklore. New Englanders do not really believe that French-speaking Canadians are stupid, nor do the British think that the Irish are dirty, nor does the world at large think that Italians are cowards, yet extensive joke scripts circle around these and many other groups. The fact that joke scripts develop rather haphazardly out of the history of particular countries helps to explain why people from different cultures have a hard time catching on to each other's jokes, many of which are variations on old themes or examples of one's expectations being suddenly violated.

The idea of looking at the creation and reception of humor to trace the intellectual (as opposed to the emotional) paths that humor takes through the brain is fairly new. Arthur Koestler in The Act of Creation (1964) claims that for people to think in new and creative ways, they must engage in bisociative thinking so as to bring concepts together in original ways. The "Ah!" kind occurs when people have an emotional reaction as they create or recognize artistic originality. The "Aha!" kind occurs when they bring divergent concepts together into scientific discoveries, while the "Ha Ha!" kind occurs with the comic recognition of ridiculous situations.

As indicated by these examples, the humor research of the future is likely to focus on particular kinds of humor as created and received by individuals in particular situations. And as the world grows smaller and people are forced to communicate with and adapt to people with different customs and beliefs, there will probably be increased interest in understanding both the bonding and the out-bonding as well as the release of frustration that comes when people laugh together.

See also Dream ; Mind ; Philosophy ; Tragedy and Comedy .


Barreca, Regina. They Used to Call Me Snow Whitebut I Drifted: Women's Strategic Use of Humor. New York: Viking, 1991.

Bergson, Henri. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. Translated by Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell. New York: Macmillan, 1911.

Boskin, Joseph. Rebellious Laughter: People's Humor in American Culture. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1997.

Cousins, Norman. Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient: Reflections on Healing and Regeneration. New York: W.W. Norton, 1979.

Davies, Christie. Ethnic Humor around the World: A Comparative Analysis. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

Freud, Sigmund. Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. Translated and edited by James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton, 1960.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro- American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Koestler, Arthur. The Act of Creation. New York: Macmillan, 1964.

Lederer, Richard. Anguished English: An Anthology of Accidental Assaults upon Our Language. Charleston, S.C.: Wyrick, 1987.

Morreall, John, ed. The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.

Nilsen, Alleen Pace, and Don L. F. Nilsen. Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century American Humor. Phoenix, Ariz.: Oryx Press/Greenwood, 2000.

Raskin, Victor. Semantic Mechanisms of Humor. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Reidel, 1985.

Rishel, Mary Ann. Writing Humor: Creativity and the Comic Mind. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2002.

Simon, John. Paradigms Lost: Reflections on Literacy and Its Decline. New York: Potter/Crown, 1980.

Spalding, Henry D. Joys of Jewish Humor. New York: Jonathan David, 1985.

Alleen Pace Nilsen

Don L. F. Nilsen

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HUMOR. Aristotle, in De partibus animalium, defined man as a being capable of laughter, but laughter is not, as some optimists have claimed, a universal language. Its function and importance differed so widely, even during our historical period, depending on national, social, and other variables, that it is far easier to ask questions than to answer them. Why did (and do) some Christians, like Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (16271704), strongly disapprove of laughter? Is there any common element uniting the hearty, even crude, laughter provoked by carnival merrymaking and slapstick comedy (French farces and sotties, Spanish pasos, the Italian commedia dell'arte) and the urbane wit called festivitas by Desiderius Erasmus (1466?1536) and Thomas More (14781535) and exemplified by the noble speakers in Baldassare Castiglione's Book of the Courtier (1528)? Can we clearly separate "popular" from "refined" or "learned" humor? And why is the terminology of humor not easily translated from one language to another?

Laughter was often considered more important in the Renaissance than it has been since. Several Renaissance princes, including Lorenzo de' Medici (14491492) and Louis XII of France (ruled 14981515), were reputed to enjoy jokes, even those directed against themselves, whereas France's Louis XIV (ruled 16431715) is said to have made only one joke in his life. Unfortunately, even today no explanation of why we laugh is universally endorsed. Sixteenth-century theorists about humor were mainly medical authorities (Laurent Joubert [15291582], Ambroise Paré [15101590]) interested in physiology; in the seventeenth century Thomas Hobbes (15881679), following Aristotle, articulated the first of the three commonest modern explanations of laughter: superiority, incongruity, and release from restraint. If we can usually see why satire provokes laughter, we are at a loss when we try to compare the humor of Molière (16221673) and Shakespeare (15641616), or of Miguel de Cervantes (15471616) and Laurence Sterne (17131768).


The Renaissance and the Reformation inspired a remarkable variety of verbal and visual humor. The great humanist Erasmus, in his Colloquies (1518), produced both biting anti-church satire ("The Funeral"), and sly and charming wit ("The Abbot and the Learned Lady"). Reformation and anti-Reformation satirists created an explosion of comic caricature in broadsheets attacking either Luther and his cohorts or the venal priests and hypocritical monks of the Roman Catholic Church. Humanist polemic did not shrink from scatological invective that would horrify most readers today (the Eccius Dedolatus ), and French farce characters could urinate on stage. Much humanist wit, like the Epistles of Obscure Men, is incomprehensible to readers with no knowledge of Latin.

The century apparently reveled in jokes (facetiae in Latin) and in comic short stories, as numerous anthologies in England, France, Italy, and Germany attest. The most influential were those of Poggio Bracciolini in Italy (14381452) and Heinrich Bebel in Germany (15081512), both written in Latin. Later collections became larger and more inclusive; there are 981 facezie in the 1574 edition of Ludovico Domenichi, written in Italian. An Erasmian love of humor inspired both François Rabelais (Gargantua and Pantagruel, 15321564), who used wit and hyperbole to convey his humanist message, and Shakespeare, whose comedies radiate a smiling acceptance of human frailty. Comic theater came to life again in most European countries in the sixteenth century, stimulated by the rediscovery of Aristotle's dramatic principles and of Plautus and Terence. National differences in comic outlook are strikingly illustrated by the German adaptation of Rabelais (15751590) by Johann Fischart, which is much cruder than its model and much less humanistically inclined. Comic visual art includes not only a wealth of satirical engravings, but the compelling visual grotesques of Pieter Bruegel (1525?1569) and Hieronymus Bosch (1450?1516) and the whimsical portraits of Giuseppe Arcimboldo (c. 15301593), which are created exclusively of fruit, flowers, or fish.


Whereas much literature of the previous century was still written in Latin, this one saw the flowering of vernacular literatures; it is Spain's Golden Age, and France's Age of Classicism. Cervantes's Don Quixote (1615), generally recognized as the first novel, has comic moments, but its prevailing tone is ironic rather than frankly humorous. Comic theater flourished, with some common elements; for instance, the classical clownish slave lived on as the Spanish gracioso, as Molière's soubrette, as the zanni (crafty servant) of the commedia dell'arte, and as numerous characters in the plays of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson (15731637).

The century's great comic dramatists were not primarily satirists. Shakespeare's dramatic worlds are more imaginary than real. Molière's minor comedies owe more to literary sources than to real life (Les Fourberies de Scapin, 1671), and his best plays only occasionally reveal his scorn for stupid minor nobles, or for dangerous religious hypocrites (Le Tartuffe, 1667). Their genius, like Shakespeare's, lies in revealing character through comedy, though Shakespeare was freer to include farce in his plays. England's Restoration drama (after 1660) was much more satirical; William Wycherley (16401716), John Vanbrugh (16641726), John Farquhar (16781707), and William Congreve (16701729) delighted in skewering stupidity and pretentiousness, as Jonson had before them. Critics continued to discuss the form and function of stage comedy, and comic opera became a popular genre.


The Age of Enlightenment specialized in satire, though less in the theater than in other genres. Carlo Goldoni's (17071793) comedies continue the tradition of comedy of intrigue, while those of Pierre de Marivaux (16881763) are more interested in human emotions than in social mores. In Russia, Denis Fonvizin (17451792) showed members of the nobility in a comic light (The Brigadier, 1769).

England produced some satirical giants: Henry Fielding (17071754), whose sprawling novel Tom Jones (1749) has comic moments; Richard Sheridan (17511816), whose Mrs. Malaprop in The School for Scandal (1777) is a comic type to rival Shakespeare's Falstaff; William Hogarth, whose moralizing series (Marriage à la mode, 1745) prefigured the modern cartoon; the verse satires of John Dryden (16311700) and Alexander Pope (16881744), and above all, Jonathan Swift (16671745). Compared to his mentors, Erasmus and Rabelais, Swift is sometimes too ferocious to be comic, as when he recommends relieving the famine in Ireland by eating babies (A Modest Proposal, 1729), but Gulliver's Travels (1726) remains a humorous and readable indictment of the society of his time.

France's Voltaire (16941778) is often both subtler and funnier than Swift, especially in his masterpiece, Candide (1759), a comprehensive attack on the aristocracy, religion, and general prejudices of his time (a battle is a "heroic butchery"; a Spanish grandee demonstrates "pride suitable in a man with so many names"). A new element in this century is the connection between laughter and eroticism, in works by Charles-Louis de Secondat de Montesquieu (16891755), Denis Diderot (17131784), and Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (17411803) (Les liaisons dangereuses, 1782).

See also Caricature and Cartoon ; Castiglione, Baldassare ; Cervantes, Miguel de ; Commedia dell'Arte ; Dryden, John ; Erasmus, Desiderius ; Jonson, Ben ; Molière ; Pope, Alexander ; Rabelais, François ; Shakespeare, William ; Sheridan, Richard Brinsley ; Swift, Jonathan ; Voltaire .


Primary Source

Bowen, Barbara C. ed. One Hundred Renaissance Jokes: An Anthology. Birmingham, Ala., 1988. Latin jokes with English translations.

Secondary Sources

Bremmer, Jan, and Herman Roodenburg, eds. A Cultural History of Humor: From Antiquity to the Present Day. Malden, Mass., 1997.

Ménager, Daniel. La Renaissance et le rire. Paris, 1995.

Barbara C. Bowen

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Humor is the name given to the psychic process that operates in the field of the preconscious, based on the dynamic interrelation between the agencies of the mind, and akin to a defense mechanism, consisting of an unexpected re-evaluation of the demands of reality that reverses their painful emotional tone and thereby offers to the triumphant ego that yield of pleasure which enables it to demonstrate its invulnerable narcissism.

Freud's first insight into the mechanism of this phenomenon, which was entrenched in the family and community life in which he was deeply involved, came in the last pages of Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious (1905c). It was, in fact, on the death of his father that he started to collect Jewish jokes (Witze ) and, at the insistence of Wilhelm Fliess, developed a theory to explain them, bringing out how their very condition of possibility lay in the activity of this process within the humorist. Although he pointed out (1908c) the kinship between this process and children's games, he did not elucidate it in metapsychological terms until the brief article of 1927 (1927d).

Unlike comedy and wit, or even irony, all of which aim at the satisfaction of erotic or aggressive drives and necessitate, for this purpose, the effective presence of a real third party, humor involves a strictly intrapsychic process of indirection whose purpose is economic, viz., sparing the subject from the painful feelings (pity, irritation, anger, suffering, disgust, tenderness, horror, etc.) that the situation ought to occasion. The energy of these feelings is thus diverted and transformed into the moderate but triumphant pleasure (so different from the explosion of hilarity) that is expressed in the smile of humor. As a result, the humorist reaffirms his narcissistic invulnerability, assuring himself that nothing traumatic can affect him, and that he can in fact find in such things a yield of pleasure.

This being the case, although humor is an autonomous process, it is encountered most often mixed with other forms of the comic, in which it finds a mode of expression, with which it is often confused, and for which it intervenes as a mechanism that inhibits any emotions that would obstruct its development.

Nonetheless, Freud considers humor as a particularly salubrious activity, making of it the rarest and most elaborate form of defense. Yet its benefits turn out in fact to be costly, necessitating a large outlay, since while this economic process, being neither denial nor repression, leads to a reversal of emotional tone, it does not eliminate the painful representation. Freud explained this as the result of a new topographical arrangement: the humorist takes the psychic emphasis off the ego and displaces it onto his superego: "Look! here is the world, which seems so dangerous! It is nothing but a game for childrenjust worth making a jest about!" (1927d, p. 166).

In fact, humor leads to a set of notions whose origin, nature, history, and development thus all need to be re-examined, as they all indubitably hark back to the genesis of the ideal psychic agencies and their function in establishing a humorous attitude towards reality. All of these dimensions, indeedwhether it be the invulnerable narcissistic kernel of which the humorist is a living testimony, the exercise of the reality principle, the experience of pain, the mechanism of illusion, or the alchemy of the emotions that it producesinvite reflection on the precocious relations that were formed between the humorist and his mother who bequeathed to him this precious gift (Donnet, J.-L., 1997; Kameniak, J.-P., 1998). For example, we need to reflectas did Freudon the enigma of the "essence of the Super-ego," a superego that manifests itself in an atypical form of functioning: as a reassuring and consoling agencyeven a maternal onethat is barely consistent with the severity usually associated with it, whether in the commands it issues or in its role as representative and guardian of the reality principle.

While humor was initially considered as a variety of the comic genre, in the same way as wit (with which it is often confused), Freud early on endeavored to distinguish it through topographical localization, the kind of gratification it affords, the absence of the need for a third person, and, finally, the specific nature of the process, all of which make it a character disposition or trait rather than a random production. Consequently, over and above the defensive use that has been classically recognized and associated with the process of humor, we might want to ask whether it could have a specific function of working-through, very different from the relaxation which is brought about by the comic effect, thus tempering any excess of emotion; how any real "work of humor" is actually accomplished; and what its nature might be. Whereas, when faced with the hostility of events, the risk of trauma may appear to be significant, humor does allow the subject to maintain the integrity of his psychic functions and their availability while also acknowledging the "disruptive" nature of reality. We can surely envisage the possibility (Bergeret, 1973) that there are hints of a working-through involved in humor, or, at the very least, the establishment of the framework needed for any possible integration of the sufferings inflicted on the subject.

Nevertheless, it cannot escape notice that there has been a general lack of interest and a relative silence on the part of contemporary analysts when it comes to this subject, apparently so frivolous though in fact it raises fundamental questions. Up until now, analytic literature on this theme has scarcely extended beyond a few scattered remarks or occasional articles, and most of them use humor as a generic category succeeding that of "the comic" proposed by Freud. Consequently, they are more likely to discuss the techniques and procedures of the modes of expression to which humor resorts than to examine the process of humor itself.

Jean-Pierre Kameniak

See also: Almanach der Psychoanalyse ; Creativity; Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious ; Paradox.


Bergeret, Jean. (1973). Pour une métapyschologie de l'humour. Revue française de psychanalyse, 37,4.

Donnet, Jean-Luc. (1997). L'humoriste et sa croyance. Revue française de psychanalyse, 61,3.

Gay, Peter. (1990). Reading Freud: Explorations and entertainments. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Kamieniak, Jean-Pierre. (1998). Freud, un enfant de l'humour. Lausanne-Paris: Delachaux & Niestlé.

Shentoub, Salem A. et al. (1989). L'Humour dans l'oeuvre de Freud. Paris: Two Cities.

Further Reading

Poland, Warren S. (1990). Gift of laughter: Development of a sense of humor in clinical analysis. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 59,197-225.

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The mental faculty of discovering, expressing, or appreciating the ludicrous or absurdly incongruous.

Sigmund Freud considered humor an outlet for discharging pent up psychic energy and diminishing the importance of potentially damaging events. Since the 1970s, research on humor has shifted from a Freudian focus to an emphasis on its cognitive dimensions, including investigations involving information-processing theory . Humor has been found to depend on the disparity between expectations and perceptions, generally termed "incongruity." Not all incongruity, however, is humorous; for humor to be evoked, the incongruous must somehow be meaningful or appropriate, and must be at least partially resolved. Research has shown the importance of humor both in social interaction and human development. Developmental psychologists consider humor a form of play characterized by the manipulation of images, symbols, and ideas. Based on this definition, humor can first be detected in infants at about 18 months of age with the acquisition of the ability to manipulate symbols. Some researchers believe that humor can be considered present in infants as young as four months old if the criterion used is the ability to perceive incongruities in a playful light and resolve them in some manner. Most research thus far has focused on responsiveness to humor rather than on its instigation, production, or behavioral consequences.

Humor serves a number of social functions. It can serve as a coping strategy, to cement allegiances, or to test the status of relationships. One of the main signs of a healthy ego is the ability to laugh at one's own foibles and mistakes. Humor can be used to lend social acceptability to forbidden feelings or attitudes, a phenomenon at least as old as the Renaissance fool or Court Jester who was given license to voice unpleasant truths and mock those in positions of authority. Research has also led to the view that humor is a way of countering anxiety by reasserting mastery over a situation. Feelings of help-lessness have been found to characterize both anxiety and depression . (One of the signs of depression is the inability to appreciate or use humor.) Humor gives people an opportunity to stand outside the dire aspects of a situation, however briefly, and assert a measure of control through the ability to laugh at their predicament. This dynamic, which drives the phenomenon known as "gallows humor," is expressed in the following witticism about two contrasting cities: "In Berlin, the situation is serious but not hopeless; in Vienna, the situation is hopeless but not serious."

Further Reading

Dix, Albert S. Humor: the Bright Side of Pain. New York, NY: Carlton Press, 1989.

Green, Lila. Making Sense of Humor: How to Add Joy to Your Life. Glen Rock, NJ: Knowledge, Ideas, and Trends, 1994.

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"Humor." Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

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HUMOUR BrE, humor AmE. Originally a mental disposition or temperament, fossilized in such forms as good-humoured and ill-humoured, humour is currently realized in the enjoyment of anecdotes, jokes, puns, repartee, riddles, wisecracks, and witticisms. Not all humour is verbal, and by no means everything that is humorous is also witty, though humour and wit are customarily neighbours, humour relating to situations and wit to the sayings the situations evoke. Some expressions of humour appear to be primordial and universal, transcending languages, independent of cultures, exacting sympathy with elementary human fears, aspirations, placations, aversions. This wordless humour is often presented graphically, as in cartoons, but, as language becomes its mediator, humour becomes increasingly culture-dependent. The JOKE usually presupposes a social bond, joker and audience drawing freely on a stock of common knowledge involving a shared history. Within this general societal humour there exist institutional types, associated with certain professions (the law, the Church) or social subgroups (children, the old, the family).

What is called a sense of humour, as if it were a skill like ability in mathematics or music, is a complex effect of people's experience as members of a culture, a nation, and various kinds of community. It might more appropriately be called a ‘sense for humour’: an ability to judge the acceptability of humour in certain situations, and a willingness to regard the capacity to laugh and to evoke laughter as legitimate behaviour. In social terms, there are times when people are free to make jokes, times when they need to make jokes, and times when joking is inhibited or disallowed.

The relationship between humour and society is obvious enough to prompt a common assumption, that particular societies, or nations, have symptomatic styles and preferences in humour. The assumption is challenged, however, by the fact that many jokes traverse the world and travel through time, as general comments on human nature and human thought, only modified in their presentation by local details of custom and setting. An ancient Roman joke tells how a man is accidentally knocked down in the street by a porter carrying a trunk. ‘Look out!’ says the porter. ‘Why?’ asks the victim, ‘Is there another trunk coming?’ This joke is an archetype with many subsequent realizations: for instance, in the slapstick film routines of workmen carrying planks that strike the same victim twice (one end at a time). See IRONY, NONSENSE, PATTER, PLAYING WITH WORDS, PUN, SATIRE.

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hu·mor / ˈ(h)yoōmər/ (Brit. hu·mour) • n. 1. the quality of being amusing or comic, esp. as expressed in literature or speech: his tales are full of humor. ∎  the ability to perceive or express humor or to appreciate a joke: their inimitable brand of humor she has a great sense of humor. 2. a mood or state of mind: her good humor vanished the clash hadn't improved his humor. ∎ archaic an inclination or whim. 3. (also cardinal humor) hist. each of the four chief fluids of the body (blood, phlegm, yellow bile [choler], and black bile [melancholy]) that were thought to determine a person's physical and mental qualities by the relative proportions in which they were present. • v. [tr.] comply with the wishes of (someone) in order to keep them content, however unreasonable such wishes might be: she was always humoring him to prevent trouble. ∎ archaic adapt or accommodate oneself to (something). PHRASES: out of humor in a bad mood.DERIVATIVES: hu·mor·less adj. hu·mor·less·ly adv. hu·mor·less·ness n. ORIGIN: Middle English (as humour): via Old French from Latin humor ‘moisture,’ from humere (see humid). The original sense was ‘bodily fluid’ (surviving in aqueous humor and vitreous humor, fluids in the eyeball); it was used specifically for any of the cardinal humors (sense 3), whence ‘mental disposition’ (thought to be caused by the relative proportions of the humors). This led, in the 16th cent., to the senses ‘state of mind, mood’ (sense 2) and ‘whim, fancy,’ hence to humor someone ‘to indulge a person's whim.’ Sense 1 dates from the late 16th cent.

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"humor." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

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213. Humor

See also 238. LAUGHTER ; 336. PUNNING

a concise witticism or well-turned phrase. Atticist , n.
1. a tendency to amuse others by tricks, jokes, unusual gestures, and strange gestures.
2. a tendency toward coarse joking. Also buffoonery . buffoon , n. buffoonish , adj.
1. amusing or witty writings and remarks.
2. coarsely witty stories or books. facetious , adj.
1. the habit of joking or jesting.
2. a joke or a jest.
3. the state or quality of humorousness or playfulness. jocose , adj.
mordancy, mordacity
the condition or quality of being biting or caustic, as humor, speech, etc. See also 382. SPEECH . mordant , adj.
trifles or trivia, especially light verses or sayings.
the habit of dealing with serious matters in a spirit of good and sometimes cynical good humor. [Allusion to Rabelais satirical novels Gargantua (1534) and Pantagruel (1532), especially to the behavior of Pantagruel, Gargantuas huge son.] Pantagruelian , adj.
a humorous performance at the piano, sometimes with a verbal accompaniment by the performer.
1. a person who imitates or is an enthusiast for the works of Francois Rabelais.
2. a person given to coarse, satirical humor, like that of Rabelais. Rabelaisian , adj.
the personality or character of Rabelais, as in the use of coarse, satirical humor. Also Rabelaisianism .
a person skilled in the exchange of witticisms.
coarse, vulgar, or obscene language or joking. ribald , adj.
1. a writer of satire.
2. a person who uses satire or makes satirical comments.

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"Humor." -Ologies and -Isms. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

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humor, according to ancient theory, any of four bodily fluids that determined human health and temperament. Hippocrates postulated that an imbalance among the humors (blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile) resulted in pain and disease, and that good health was achieved through a balance of the four humors; he suggested that the glands had a controlling effect on this balance. For many centuries this idea was held as the basis of medicine and was much elaborated. Galen introduced a new aspect, that of four basic temperaments related to the elements of which matter was thought to consist (fire, water, air, and earth) and reflecting the humors: the sanguine, buoyant type; the phlegmatic, sluggish type; the choleric, quick-tempered type; and the melancholic, dejected type. In time any personality aberration or eccentricity was referred to as a humor. The medical theory of humors was undermined in the centuries after the Renaissance and lost favor in the 19th cent. after the German Rudolf Virchow presented his cellular pathology.

In literature, a humor character was one in whom a single passion predominated; this interpretation was especially popular in Elizabethan and other Renaissance literature. One of the most comprehensive treatments of the subject was the Anatomy of Melancholy, by Robert Burton. The theory found its strongest advocates among the comedy writers, notably Ben Jonson and his followers, who used humor characters to illustrate various modes of irrational and immoral behavior.

See N. Arikha, Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours (2007).

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"humor." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

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humour, U.S. humor fluid, spec. any of the four chief fluids of the body (blood, phlegm, choler, melancholy) XIV; mental disposition, orig. as determined by the proportion of these XV; mood, temper, inclination XVI; quality of action or speech which excites amusement; faculty of perceiving this XVII. — AN. (h)umour, OF. (h)umor, -ur (mod. humeur) — L. (h)ūmor, -ōr-, f. (h)ūm-, as in HUMID.
Hence humour comply with the humour of. XVI. So humo(u)rist †person subject to ‘humours’; humorous or facetious person. XVI. — F. humorous †moist, humid; pert. or subject to ‘humours’ XVI; showing humour XVIII.

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"humour." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

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humour (hew-mer) n. a body fluid. See aqueous humour, vitreous humour.

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"humour." A Dictionary of Nursing. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

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humordormer, former, korma, Norma, performer, pro-forma, stormer, transformer, trauma, warmer •sixth-former • barnstormer •aroma, carcinoma, chroma, coma, comber, diploma, glaucoma, Homer, lymphoma, melanoma, misnomer, Oklahoma, Omagh, roamer, Roma, romer, sarcoma, soma •beachcomber •bloomer, boomer, consumer, Duma, humour (US humor), Nkrumah, perfumer, puma, roomer, rumour (US rumor), satsuma, stumer, Sumer, tumour (US tumor) •zeugma • fulmar •bummer, comer, drummer, hummer, midsummer, mummer, plumber, rummer, strummer, summa, summer •latecomer • newcomer • agama •welcomer •astronomer, monomer •ashrama • isomer • gossamer •customer •affirmer, Burma, derma, Irma, murmur, squirmer, terra firma, wormer

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"humor." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

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humourdormer, former, korma, Norma, performer, pro-forma, stormer, transformer, trauma, warmer •sixth-former • barnstormer •aroma, carcinoma, chroma, coma, comber, diploma, glaucoma, Homer, lymphoma, melanoma, misnomer, Oklahoma, Omagh, roamer, Roma, romer, sarcoma, soma •beachcomber •bloomer, boomer, consumer, Duma, humour (US humor), Nkrumah, perfumer, puma, roomer, rumour (US rumor), satsuma, stumer, Sumer, tumour (US tumor) •zeugma • fulmar •bummer, comer, drummer, hummer, midsummer, mummer, plumber, rummer, strummer, summa, summer •latecomer • newcomer • agama •welcomer •astronomer, monomer •ashrama • isomer • gossamer •customer •affirmer, Burma, derma, Irma, murmur, squirmer, terra firma, wormer

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