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Introduction to the Psychology of Humor





We all know what it is like to experience humor. Someone tells a joke, relates an amusing personal anecdote, makes a witty comment or an inadvertent slip of the tongue, and we are suddenly struck by how funny it is. Depending on how amusing we perceive the stimulus to be, it might cause us to smile, to chuckle, or to burst out in peals of convulsive laughter. Our response is accompanied by pleasant feelings of emotional well-being and mirth. Most of us have this sort of experience many times during the course of a typical day. Because humor is so familiar and is such an enjoyable and playful activity, many people might think they already understand it and do not need research in psychology to explain it. However, the empirical study of humor holds many interesting surprises.

Although it is essentially a type of mental play involving a lighthearted, non serious attitude toward ideas and events, humor serves a number of "serious" social, emotional, and cognitive functions, making it a fascinating and rewarding topic of scientific investigation. The topic of humor raises a host of intriguing questions of relevance to all areas of psychology. What are the mental processes involved in "getting a joke" or perceiving something to be funny? How is humor processed in the brain, and what effect does it have on our bodies? What is laughter and why do we laugh in response to humorous things? Why is humor so enjoyable? What role does humor play in our interactions with other people? What is a sense of humor and how does it develop in children? Is a good sense of humor beneficial for mental and physical health?

As is evident from these and other related questions, humor touches on all branches of academic psychology (R. A. Martin, 2000). Researchers in the area of cognitive psychology may be interested in the mental processes involved in the perception, comprehension, appreciation, and creation of humor. The interpersonal functions of humor in dyadic interactions and group dynamics are of relevance to social psychology. Developmental psychologists may focus on the way humor and laughter develops from infancy into childhood and throughout the lifespan. Personality researchers might examine individual differences in sense of humor and their relation to other traits and behaviors.

Biological psychology can shed light on the physiological bases of laughter and the brain regions underlying the comprehension and appreciation of humor. The role of humor in mental and physical health, as well as its potential applications in psychotherapy, education, and the workplace, are of interest to applied branches of psychology such as clinical, health, educational, and industrial-organizational psychology. Thus, researchers from every branch of the discipline have potentially interesting contributions to make to the study of humor. Indeed, a complete understanding of the psychology of humor requires an integration of findings from all these areas.

Despite the obvious importance of humor in many different areas of human experience and its relevance to all branches of psychology, mainstream psychology has paid surprisingly little attention to this subject up to now. Humor research typically receives scant mention, if any at all, in undergraduate psychology texts or scholarly articles. Nonetheless, there has been a steady accumulation of research on the topic over the years, producing a sizable body of knowledge. The overall aim of this article is therefore to introduce students and academics in psychology, as well as scholars and professional practitioners from other fields, to the existing research literature, and to point out interesting avenues for further study in this fascinating topic area.

In this chapter, I will begin by summarizing evidence of the universality and evolutionary origins of humor and laughter in humans. I will then explore the question of what humor is, discussing four essential elements of the humor process and the relevance of each to an integrative psychology of humor. This will be followed by a survey of the many different forms of humor that we encounter during our daily lives, and an examination of the psychological functions of humor and laughter. Next, I will summarize the history of the concept of humor, examining the way popular conceptions and assumptions about humor and laughter have changed dramatically over the centuries. Finally, I will discuss the psychological approach to humor and then present an overview of the rest of this article.

Continue to "The Universality of Humor and Laughter”



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