2.2 Psychology

The discussion of humour has taxed many notable Western thinkers for at least two millenia. Plato wrote on the subject in 335 B.C. and since then it has attracted the attentions of such people as Aristotle, Hobbes, Descartes, Kant, Schopenhauer, and Freud. Even so, Wilson (1979) notes, ‘In view of the two thousand years of pursuit, the genius of many of the pursuers, and the pervasiveness of humour, the results seem disappointing’ (p.9). Disappointing, one assumes, because they have given us such widely and wildly differing theories. Wilson suggests that this great variety can be reduced to three general theories – conflict theories, relief theories, incongruity theories – all of which themselves share a common theme:

A simple generalisation can be derived from the broad agreement of the theories. Incongruity has consistently been cited as a sufficient or necessary cause of humour. The general proposition is that the components of a joke or humorous incident are in mutual clash, conflict or contradiction.
(p.9, emphasis added)

This would seem to concur with Dascal’s linguistic findings above. This incongruity and its interpretation can be represented diagrammatically by the Necker Cube thus:

figure 3
Figure 3. Joke interpretation. (Wilson p.22)

Maier (1932) saw the resolution of incongruity as static, involving but one rapid interpretation:

figure 4

Figure 4. Static joke resolution (p.23)

Fry (1963) and Boston (1952) suggest, however, that humorous stimuli trigger a sequence of rapid vacillations between alternative meanings. In the diagram the cube may be perceived in two ways (Ml and M2) by virtue of reversible perspective. The two interpretations are mutually exclusive. Thus, X= Ml, X= M2, but Ml ¹ M2. Rapid shifts in interpretation are assumed to induce amusement. They also restore equilibrium in that

if X=Ml, then not only Ml ¹ M2 but also X¹ M2
if X=M2, then not only M1 ¹M2 but also X ¹Ml

This can be seen diagrammatically thus:

figure 5
Figure 5. Dynamic joke resolution (p.22)

However, it is here contended that even this dynamic model overlooks certain important points, and that the interpretation of jokes does not involve only Ml and M2 in a mutually exclusive relationship but, rather, that it is a dialectical process in which Ml and M2 interact to produce a new unit of meaning, M3. To explain. As the special meaning M2 (the punch line) is presented as late as possible in place of the expected meaning Ml, it is clear that much of the interpretation of the textual cues needed to arrive at both Ml and M2 is identical. (Indeed, it is reasonable to say that the nearer one is to Ml before the switch to M2, the greater the surprise, the ‘better’ the joke.) Thus, M2, the punch line, can only be perceived to have a special meaning by virtue of its relationship to Ml. If the joke led the recipient directly to M2 without any strong hints at Ml there would be no incongruity, no poetic clash, and, one assumes, no laughter, as M2 would have no special meaning. However, in the dialectical model, an implicit understanding (but not acceptance) of Ml is integral, and, together with an explicit understanding and acceptance of M2, provides complete comprehension, M3. This is easier to see in diagrammatic form. Here a joke from Chiaro’s earlier taxonomy is used to illustrate the various points just made.

figure 6

Figure 6. Dialectic joke resolution. (the Strong Trace Model)

It is hoped that it is clear that a strong trace of Ml (the miser had a holiday) remains in the complete comprehension (M3) of the cues presented in this joke (X). Without this indivisible interaction at the semantic level there is no incongruity and, thus, no joke.

Another interaction that takes place in humour appreciation is between the text and the schemata of the recipient. This needs be as the joke’s indirectness relies heavily on the linguistic, sociocultural, and poetic knowledge of the recipient. Suls, who sees humour as essentially information processing and problem solving in contrast to, say, Freud, who sees it in terms of psychological motivations (see below), offers a two-stage model of humour appreciation. (See Figure 7. Click here to view in a new window)

figure 7

Figure 7. Suls’ humour appreciation model (p. 85)

Stage 1 ends at ‘Surprise’ and is as far as many early explanations of humour went. Stage 2 involves the use of the General Problem Solver (GPS) developed by Newell et al (1958). After the surprise the GPS looks for a way to resolve A (premise) with B (punch line). There are three possibilities: transform A to B; reduce the difference (D) between A and B; apply operator (that is, an allowable transformation) Q to A. ‘The GPS is equipped with a table which gives the permissible transformations which are relevant to reducing particular differences’ (pp.88-9). Once an appropriate cognitive rule has been found, the hearer gets the joke, congruity is restored. Failure to find a rule (to get the joke) maintains incongruity. (It is also worth noting that such a model allows for predictions and this would enable a strong trace of Ml to be carried through to the complete comprehension.)

The techniques for expressing incongruity are many, as was shown above in Chiaro’s taxonomy. Freud reduced these down to two chief techniques, those of condensation and displacement (1905: 41-2), discussion of which, space does not allow. However, he also has much to say on the content and function of humour. He put forward three classes of jokes: the trivial, the innocent, and the tendentious, of which the latter two will receive attention here.

For him, the content of tendentious jokes is sexual, aggressive, cynical or absurd (p.115), whereas innocent jokes he describes as those involving double meanings, plays on words, or nonsense (p.119). (He would seem to confuse form and content somewhat, as plays on words etc. can be sexual, aggressive etc.). Both types are frowned upon by civilised society, the former suppressed and repressed for their taboo content (pp.l17-9), the latter inhibited by the development of reason and criticism (p.125). The pleasure to be had from jokes would seem to stem largely from the economy in expenditure of psychical energy which they allow. This comes about in three ways – the economy in expenditure on inhibition and suppression provided by tendentious jokes (p.119); the economy in the train of thought provided by word play when we are ‘transported by the same or similar word from one circle of ideas to another, remote one’ (p.120); and economy in expenditure of psychical energy provided by the discovery of the familiar (p.120), (which here might be termed the resolution of incongruity). These psychological functions of the joke can be seen developmentally in the following way:


Pleasure from the free use of words and thoughts in childhood



When reason and criticism develop the pleasure is maintained through jests which acceptably liberate nonsense



This gives assistance to thoughts and strengthens them
against the challenge of critical judgement



Comes to the help of major sources which are combating suppression by providing the fore-pleasure of laughter which produces new pleasure by lifting suppressions and repressions




It does not seem likely that this is the sole psychological function of jokes. Wilson elaborates further. According to introspective and factor-analytic studies of emotional expression, emotions may be distinguished in terms of three dimensions of feeling – pleasure, excitement, and activity. Jokes effect changes in all three: the incongruity evokes arousal which mediates feelings of pleasure and excitement, and attempts to resolve the incongruity evoke feelings of activity. He offers the following tabular representation and comment:











Amusement is contained, along with many other emotions – elation, delight , exhilaration – in the JOY quadrant of pleasurable excitement, and may be distinguished from its neighbours and relations in terms of its duration and component feeling of activity. For the incongruity that evokes amusement provides a mental puzzle. In contrast to the incongruities of art, literature, science, and myth, those of humour are rapidly and readily resolved.

Suls (1972) distinguishes further between the incongruities of humour and other forms of puzzlement by noting that the incongruities of the latter arise logically from their premises, whereas those of humour do not follow logically from the preceding text (p.84). He also adds that because there are many other forms of incongruity which are not considered amusing, then incongruity is not a sufficient condition for humour, only a necessary one (p.84). Another significant distinction he makes, which few other writers of humour do, is that between narrative humour – verbal jokes, captioned cartoons, and nonnarrative humour – visual slapstick, gestures, facial expressions, captionless cartoons (pp.8l-2).