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Next: A (V)iolation of what? Up: A Theory of Humor Previous: Introduction

Humor is Affective Absurdity

To begin, let us postulate that

There exists a certain psychological state which tends to produce laughter, which is the natural phenomenon or process of ``humor'', or ``humor perception''.

It may be helpful to explicate further certain elements of this fundamental postulate. First, for expository purposes some noun is needed to get the reader to think of properties of a mental event rather than to think of laughing, and ``perception'' was chosen for this. In this paper, ``perception'' adds no qualification to ``humor:'' Humor and humor perception are the same; only one natural phenomenon is referred to here.

The term, ``perception,'' is not an easy choice. ``Perception'' refers to a range of processes that have long been studied by psychologists, and the term can carry much theory and controversy with it. It is used here, however, not to suggest all the (often contradictory) connotations the term has for psychologists, but simply because no better term could be found. ``Perception'' was chosen as primary because humor occurs involuntarily, because it appears to subjects (falsely, I would argue) to be inherent in situations rather than derived by process of reasoning, and because it is not purely cognitive. ``Interpretation'', ``comprehension'', ``understanding'', or other terms might serve as well in various contexts.

Second, not all perceptions of humor actually produce overt laughter, thus ``tends to produce'' rather than ``produces'' in the fundamental postulate above; this allows for laughter with or without humor and vice versa. So there may be unobservable instances of humor perception, where it is impossible to tell if someone finds something funny or not.4 It is also possible to perform laughter, without genuinely perceiving humor, as in certain strategic, communicative acts. Until such time as a unified observational basis for humor is established, we may simply assume its existence as a unitary phenomenon.

The theory presented just below characterizes this phenomenon using the phrase ``necessary and (jointly) sufficient conditions''. ``Necessary'' means that if any of the conditions is absent, then humor perception will also be absent. ``Jointly sufficient'' means that if all of the conditions are present, then humor perception will also be present. The theory is scientifically adequate only if necessity and joint sufficiency are observed in reality to be properties of the three conditions. That is, if there is a case of humor which lacks any of the three conditions, then the theory ``undergenerates'' and is false: the missing condition is not in fact necessary. And if there is a case of non-humor which contains all three of the conditions, then the theory ``overgenerates'' and is also false: the three conditions together are not sufficient. A scientifically adequate theory of humor must get all the cases right: it must both include the humorous cases and exclude the non-humorous cases. Thus prefaced, here is the theory.

The necessary and (jointly) sufficient conditions for the perception of humor are:

The perceiver has in mind a view of the situation as constituting a violation of some affective commitment of the perceiver to the way something in the situation ought to be. That is, a ``subjective moral principle'' (cf. next section) of the perceiver is violated.

The perceiver has in mind a predominating view of the situation as being normal.

The N and V understandings are present in the mind of the perceiver at the same instant in time.

Restating more briefly and less precisely, humor occurs when it seems that things are normal (N) while at the same time something seems wrong (V). Or, in an only apparent paradox, Humor is (emotional) pain (V) that doesn't hurt (N).

An intuitive feeling for the theory may be developed by briefly feeling bad about something (V) and then making oneself feel that that very thing is actually okay (N). Levity can arise from this simple emotional mixture alone, without any further details of situational grounding.

Consider the basic categories used here. In saying that the perceiver views the situation as normal, N, and simultaneously as a moral violation, V, I will sometimes use N and V, which are symbolic abbreviations that represent the most fundamental of emotional differences or categories. As categories existing in opposition to one another, V is the absence of N, and N is the absence of V. ``N'' says things are okay; ``V'' says things are not okay, something is wrong. In the psychology of emotions, N and V represent the most fundamental distinction of all, which may be described variously as non-aversive vs. aversive; or normal vs. moral violation; or okay vs. not okay; or acceptable vs. unacceptable; or good, positive or neutral vs. bad or negative; and so on. The main point is that in this view the various forms of both positive and neutral evaluations fall together as against negative evaluations. The term, ``normal,'' is correctly ambiguous between neutral and positive states of affairs, which is why it is used here. That is, the difference between neutral and positive evaluations is less important than the V vs. N distinction between negative vs. non-negative affects. It can be argued that the intricate variety of feelings and and the many shades of human emotional interpretation are all derivative of or overlaid onto this most basic distinction, which underlies all emotional evaluations. Certainly it is quite generally possible to categorize emotions in terms of this difference.

The biological logic of this difference is worth noting: aversive behavior is biologically more important than attraction, because it is more important to avoid catastrophe and get out of danger (of death or injury) than it is to move from a neutral state to a more desired or pleasant, positive state. And the social aspects of this emotional difference are very concrete and useful to explore, as is done in the next section, where the connection is made with moral affects.

The N and V notation will be helpful to us. In discussing this theory, the subjective interpretations referred to by N and V may clearly be described in many stylistically different ways, which can lead to an unfortunate confusion as to whether or not the emotional categories referred to are well-defined. Using these category labels helps to make clear that certain fixed and fundamental entities are involved, despite the somewhat different terms in which they may sometimes be described. As you become familiar with the theory, you may develop the knack of measuring each emotional stance in situations described in this paper -- and in observations of life around you -- in terms of the interpretation being one of N or one of V; normality or violation; things being okay, or things being wrong (where ``wrong'' has emotional consequences). This knack of seeing through to the emotional essentials will enable you to quickly see the core argument and its application in arbitrary contexts, and to learn how the theory can be used to understand practical situations.

The probably artificial but nonetheless useful distinction between affect and cognition is often raised here. Both N and V are ``views of a situation'' which carry emotional or affective content. ``Affect'' here refers to emotional content or attitudes, as opposed to ``cognition'', which refers to substantive, factual content. Thus propositions describing the facts of a situation may form a cognitive representation, while other propositions describing emotional attitudes toward aspects of the situation form a representation of the subjective perceiver's affects.

A ``situation'' may be defined as including what is in the attention or interpretive focus of the perceiver (which may include many related propositions including associated affective interpretations). Any view of any situation includes propositional content about the entities in the situation and their properties and relationships. Therefore N and V ``views of a situation'' certainly constitute cognitive representations. At the same time, humans interpret situations as carrying an additional emotional or affective content, if only the null interpretation that the situation is perfectly unremarkable. ``N'' and ``V'' may be seen as placeholders for cognitive representations, which partially specify their affective content using the most fundamental and basic of affective distinctions. Thus the terms of the theory determine both affective and cognitive psychological properties.

To reiterate the logic, the theory's claim that the three conditions are jointly sufficient means that if all three conditions are present in some individual's mind then humor will also be present, or in other words, that every case with all three will also contain humor perception. The logic is simple enough so far. The claim of necessity further states that if any of the three necessary conditions for humor is lacking, then humor will not be perceived. Next, let's consider how this applies to each of the conditions individually.

First, V. According to the theory, situations in which nothing seems wrong to the perceiver are not perceived as funny. Note that the perception of a subjective moral violation in a situation, V, is a function of both the situation and the perceiver. That is, a somewhat different situation may have no apparent violation and thus lose its humor. On the other hand, viewing the same situation, a different perceiver, who may have different views of the way things are supposed to be, or different affective commitments to those views, will consequently perceive humor differently. Thus humor perception is doubly subjective, not only in that it is a psychological event in a subjective perceiver, but also in that different subjects may differ in their perceptions.

Second, N. If a view of the situation as normal is lacking, then there can be no perceived humor, according to this theory. If the situation cannot be interpreted as normal, then it also cannot be funny. N may be lacking entirely, or it may be driven out of the perceiver's interpretation by a strong V interpretation. In the first instance, an unambiguous moral violation is not funny; in the second, an affectively ambiguous situation also fails to be perceived as funny when the violation interpretation is so strong that the normality interpretation cannot predominate or fails entirely, when the perceiver decides that things are not okay after all. The latter may occur when the perceiver has too strong an emotional attachment to the violated principle; this kind of situation is discussed in a later section. In instances where N is lacking, the perceiver may be offended or threatened by a V interpretation rather than being amused.

Third, Simultaneity. The theory claims that if the two interpretations are not simultaneously present, then humor perception cannot occur. One feeling followed by another gives a sequence of feelings, perhaps giving relief or dismay, but not humor. Ways of packing two views of a situation into one mind at the same time, such as surprise and ambiguity, therefore have important roles in humor. Also, while conflict, ambivalence, various forms of ambiguity, etc., all have the character of a simultaneous experience of contrasting thoughts or feelings, it is only in conjunction with the other two conditions that humor occurs: any one (or two) of the conditions is not sufficient without the remaining conditions. These are all consequences of the theory's claim that the three conditions are necessary.

The N and V interpretations are not completely independent, however; they interact with one another in the mind. If the perceiver is strongly attached to the principle violated, then it may be impossible to hold both N and V interpretations at the same time, because the situation is such an extreme violation that the perceiver cannot maintain seeing it as normal, and consequently the emotional persuasiveness or intensity of the V interpretation drives out the N interpretation. It is the relative strength of the two interpretations which is essential; the N interpretation must predominate over the V interpretation, or be felt as more consciously real or correct. That is, the perceiver must feel that the situation really is normal, despite the violation; the normality interpretation is seen as fundamental or primary.

This paper explains and explores this simple and well-defined theory and its consequences, and applies it to explain a variety of ways in which things can generate laughter, and, equally important, to explain how things can fail to be funny as well. General theoretical issues are discussed first, and humor-related phenomena are explored later in the successive sections of the paper.

next up previous
Next: A (V)iolation of what? Up: A Theory of Humor Previous: Introduction
Tom Veatch