Why do we laugh?

by Emrys Westacott

Tuxedo-obama-laughing-afp-640x480Why do human beings laugh? The question is ambiguous. It could be understood in at least three ways:

1) What features of jokes or amusing situations prompt us to laugh?

2) What psychological mechanism is called into play by the things we find amusing?

3) What evolutionary process led to the phenomenon of human laughter and our capacity for humor?

The first question has often been posed by thinkers seeking to identify the essence of humor, the thing that all amusing phenomena have in common. The second question sees humor as a possible avenue of insight into human nature. Philosophers and psychologists who have sought to understand humor and laughter have typically focused on (1) and (2). The third question has only been asked more recently as the popularity of evolutionist thinking has grown.

The evolutionary question is certainly fascinating and has produced some ingenious hypotheses. Perhaps the simplest view is that laughter originated in the cry of triumph let out by a victorious hunter or warrior. As Stephen Leacock puts it: “The savage who first cracked his enemy over the head with a tomahawk and shouted “Ha ha!” was the first humorist.

More subtle is the “false alarm” theory which notes that we typically laugh after some gradually built-up expectation is resolved in a non-threatening way. This happens, for instance, when we hear the punch line of a joke, when we are saved from danger, or when the monster threatening us with outstretched talons turns out to be a tickling monster. The theory suggests that laughter began as a specific kind of signal from one individual to others that what had seemed threatening was in fact harmless.

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