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    Humor is a universal activity, enjoyed by humans throughout the lifespan and throughout all cultures. The question of the role that humor plays in the lives of human beings has been a topic of interest in psychology since Sigmund Freud first published Wit and its relationship to the unconscious (1916).

    The goal of this paper is to review various psychological theories on humor and to explore the form, function, and purpose of humor throughout the human lifespan. Psychoanalytic Theories of Humor According to Paul McGhee, a prominent researcher on the psychology of humor, Sigmund Freud’s theory on humor is still – as of 1971 – the most influential theory put forth (McGhee, 1971, p. 328).

    Freud believed that the pleasure derived from humor was due to the saving or “economy” of psychic energy. Furthermore, Freud differentiated between the comic which he saw as related to the cognitive domain, humor related to the affective, and wit which was related to the conative. The conative being the dynamic relationship between the cognitive and affective domains. Therefore, a comical situation results in a “saving in thought,” in which there is a transition from viewing a situation as serious to realizing that it is silly or inconsequential.

    The energy saved in not having to think about a serious situation, Freud believed, manifested outwardly as laughter. A humorous situation resulted in the saving of negative feeling or affect in an otherwise serious situation by making light of the seriousness of the situation. In other words, by denying the seriousness of a situation, one feels more in control of the situation. Lastly, wit results in the saving of normally inhibited thoughts or ideas, usually through a play on words.

    Freud posited that there are two types of wit: tendential wit and harmless wit. Tendential wit allows for sexual or aggressive urges and ideas, that are normally inhibited, to be discharged in a socially acceptable way. In harmless wit, one gains pleasure from shedding of efforts to maintain normative and rational modes of thinking (Freud, 1916). Subsequent analysts expanded on Freud’s idea on the function of humor as a discharge.

    Wolfenstein (1954) posited the underlying motive in children’s humor was a brief reprieve from the anxieties and distress of childhood – often related to feelings of powerlessness. Similar to Freud’s concept of tendential wit, Wolfenstein (1954) believed that children learn that they must inhibit sexual and aggressive urges and humor becomes a way to express those urges. As early as six years old, children begin to understand the importance of a joke facade, through which they can make jokes that are unacceptable.

    From a developmental perspective, this can be viewed as an internalization of what society or parental figures see as morally acceptable behavior. So, humor functions as a means to discharge not only the frustrations, fears, and anxieties around powerlessness that are common in childhood, but also as an egoistic way to discharge impulses and thoughts that are unacceptable to express.

    Another important element that a number of psychoanalysts focused on was the sense of mastery or control that children gain through humor. As Mcghee (1971) points out, several psychoanalysts emphasized the importance of mastery underlying children’s humor. Wolfenstein suggested that that the child’s ability to understand when another person is making a joke is indicative of a certain level of mastery of the child’s environment.

    Kris posited that in order for a child to understand the humor in a situation or a joke, they must have a sense of mastery or understanding over the situation. For example, in order for a child to find a physical or cognitive mistake humorous, they themselves must first master – or understand – that cognitive or physical task (1957, p. 83). Grotjahn (1957) similarly posited that children begin to discover humor through their mastery of physical movements.

    This need to master the situation through humor is the fundamental motivation underscoring so many of the developmental tasks of childhood, beginning in toddlerhood. Differences in Humor Amongst Age Groups A large focus within empirical studies on humor has been to observe how different age groups react differently to humorous situations. Laughter occurs in infancy, usually between 10 and 20 weeks, and increasingly becomes a common element of the interchange between infant and caregiver (Martin, 2007, p. 230).

    In the first year of life, laughter increases in frequency and is a response to a wider variety of maternal behaviors (Sroufe and Wunsch, 1972). Additionally, the types of behaviors that induce laughter in an infant change over the first year. Tactile and auditory stimuli, such as a mother rubbing the infant’s stomach or mooing like a cow, will cause a seven-to-eight-month-old laugh, but less so a twelve-month-old. A twelve-month old is more likely to find visual and social behaviors humorous, whereas a seven-to-eight-month-old would not.

    Sroufe and Wuncsch (1972) observed that situations which challenge the infant’s cognitive schemas in a non-threatening way render the greatest laughter response from them. Based off of these observations they came up with a theory of humor in infants in which cognitive-arousal is caused by an incongruity that the infant attempts to process. If the infant determines that the stimulus is safe he/she will laugh in response. If the stimulus is deemed unsafe the infant will cry or try to avoid it (Martin, 2007, p. 231).

    Based on this theory, one may come to see laughter as a stress-response protocol in infants in which an unfamiliar situation or stimulus elicits arousal within the infant and, once the situation is assessed and deemed non-threatening, laughter occurs – almost as if it were a sigh of relief; a discharge through which the stress-response system returns to baseline. It is important to note that if the infant is unable to make sense of the incongruity or deviance, they will likely deem the situation to be unsafe or confusing (Martin, 2007, p. 232).

    This brings us back to the idea of mastery or understanding of the situation in order to find it humorous. The novelty must be incongruent or deviant enough to pique interest and curiosity, but not so outside of the infant’s cognitive schema that it defies comprehension and they are unable to integrate the stimulus into their schema. With this in mind, one can understand why an individual’s sense of humor evolves – why it must evolve.

    Once a scenario or stimulus has been integrated, it will eventually cease to arouse interest or curiosity, it ceases to be novel. Therefore, new, unfamiliar, novel scenarios are required to elicit the same humorous response. Familiarity breeds contempt, or at the very least, boredom. This Due to how disentangled humor, laughter, and play are in early infancy, researchers today tend to avoid commenting on when exactly humor develops in early infancy.

    That said, nearly all believe that it originates in play and by the age of two, children are able to distinguish humor from other sorts of play – such as dress-up, or playing doctor (Martin, 2007). In studying children aged three to six years old, Justin (1932) found an increase in laughter in response to various situations – such as superiority and degradation, surprise or defeated expectations, incongruity and contrast, social smiles as a stimulus, relief from strain, and play situations – from age three up until age five and a decrease at age six.

    All of the children laughed more in situations in which they participated (McGhee, 1971). Wells (1934) asked children in grades seven, nine, and twelve to list in order which types of comedic literature they prefer. All age groups preferred the following order: a) absurdity, b) slapstick, c) satire, and d) whimsy.

    Preference for absurdity decreased slightly with age and preference for satire and whimsy increased slightly with age. Wells posited that it was the incongruity and unexpectedness that was so appreciated in the absurd literature (McGhee, 1971). This may speak to the elements of mastery and discharge that psychoanalytic theories of humor focused on. Only when one has mastered a situation and knows how it should play out will they laugh at the absurd, incongruous way in which it defies that expectation.

    And, according to Freud, such absurdity is comical in that it engages the cognitive expectations or schemas that one has about a scenario. Along those lines, one could speculate that the increased interest in satire increases with age due to the fact that it requires more abstract thinking, a less self-centric perspective, and a basic understanding of the mechanisms and functions of society that are being satirized.

    McGhee’s Four-Stage Model Paul McGhee (1979) proposed a model for the development of humor in childhood which consists of four stages. The first stage, “incongruous actions toward objects,” is contingent upon the preoperational stage of cognitive development, during which children become capable of engaging in fantasy or make-believe. During this developmental task, the child develops cognitive schemas through which they can represent objects internally.

    This usually occurs at two and a half years. During this time, children’s humor centers around playfully and intentionally assimilating objects into schemas that they should not logically exist in. An example of this would be using a sand bucket as a top hat. At around age three, children begin to intentionally mislabel objects – for example, referring to the pet dog as a horse. This is McGhee’s second stage which he called “incongruous labeling of objects and events.” “Conceptual incongruity” is the third stage which usually begins early in the third year of life.

    Humor in this phase goes beyond simply mislabeling objects to violating one or more elements of a concept. For example, a child in this stage may find the idea of a bird that barks like a dog and has cow spots on it humorous. Children also begin to engage in word-play during this stage (Martin, 2007, p. 240). This appreciation for word-play deepens in the McGhee’s final stage called “multiple meanings”. A number of prerequisite cognitive developments occur prior to “multiple meanings” which begins around seven years of age.

    Children move from preoperational to the concrete operations stage, they begin to recognize the ambiguities in language, they begin to understand concepts of conservancy, reversibility, and begin to recognize that other’s have different perspectives than their own. All of this sets the stage for understanding more complex word-play and jokes that require more abstract or inferential thinking. McGhee believed that individuals remain in this stage through adolescence and adulthood.

    Martin (2007), however, posited that development continues as individuals thinking and perception of the world becomes more abstract, more logical than experiential, and more complicated. According to Martin, “the cognitive development of humor may be viewed as the development of more sophisticated mental structures and cognitive abilities with which the individual is able to engage in the perception and creation of playful incongruities” (2007, p. 241).

    Environmental Factors Contributing to the Development of Humor There are many social and environmental factors that contribute to the development of humor. Several studies have found that individuals find humorous audio recordings more funny in the presence of others (Chapman, 1973b) and even more so when the person present finds the recording humorous (Chapman and Wright, 1976; G. E. Brown, Wheeler, and Cash, 1980).

    Humor can also take on aggressive tone in the form of teasing. Teasing amongst children is common and varies in aggressiveness. In regards to the familial factors influencing the development of humor, it makes sense that the earliest interpersonal relationships and dynamics that a child has will have the most significant impact on how their sense of humor develops.

    Relationships dynamics between parents and child often serve as templates that are then taken out into the world and applied in other relationships. There are two competing schools of thought: the Modeling/Reinforcement Hypothesis (McGhee, Bell, and Duffey, 1986) and the Stress and Coping Hypothesis (Manke, 1998).

    The Modeling/Reinforcement Hypothesis suggests that humorous parents that enjoy joking with one another and often do so, serve as role models for their children and positively reinforce their children’s involvement in humorous exchanges and joking, thus causing the child to further develop a sense of humor. The Stress and Coping Hypothesis, much more cynically, proposes that a sense of humor may develop as a coping mechanism in a child as a response to distress, anxiety, and conflict within the family.

    By cultivating a sense of humor, children in family systems that are a source of anxiety and conflict can release negative feelings – harkening back to Freud’s ideas on discharge – and garner attention from otherwise inattentive parents (McGhee, 1980b). Both theories have been supported by a number of studies, however, sadly there seems to be more evidence for the Stress and Coping Hypothesis. Even still, there is likely some truth in both theories (Martin, 2007, p. 258).


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