Humour, Jokes and Laughter: A Funny Thing

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Humour, Jokes and Laughter: A Funny Thing

The marvellous thing about a joke with a double meaning is that it can mean only one thing. (Ronnie Barker, Sauce, 1977)

He that jokes confesses. (Italian Proverb)

A different taste in jokes is a great strain on the affections. (George Eliot, Daniel Deronda, 1850)

What does a sense of humour tell us about an individual? Why are some jokes funny and others not? What is the function of humour in society? Does humour travel? Why do some countries think things are funny while others do not? Do people have to feel superior to others to laugh at them? Is visual humour different from verbal humour?

What about professionals who make money from humour? Is it true that many great comedians are prone to bipolar disorder and only at their best when they are up, and manic? These are important but unresolved issues.

Psychologists since Freud have been very interested in what people find funny and why. Like many other everyday activities they can be seen to give a remarkably powerful insight into the human psyche.

For the psychologist the central question is ’What is funny, for whom, and why?’. They have studied the difference between laughing with, as opposed to laughing at, someone. Some people are particularly sensitive to the latter, which can cause great pain.

First the history: umor is the Latin word for liquid, fluids. Hence humores: body fluids: blood, phlegm, black and yellow bile. Today we think of humour and wit as talents; the ability to make others laugh.

Freud was very interested in humour and what it revealed about the unconscious. He asked: Why are we obsessed with sex and aggression in jokes? What do joke preferences tell us about people’s personality dynamics? How can we account for different forms of humour: (a) verbal jokes, (b) physical comedy, (c) philosophical perspective-taking? Why is laughter so enjoyable?

He concluded that jokes of many sorts release emotions and drives that are normally repressed. He essentially distinguished between two forms: Obscene wit which was about sexual drives and Witty invective which was about aggressive drives. He maintained that these drives are normally kept in check by our superego or conscience (’censor’). Thus, for jokes to be successful they need to be able to release psychic energy. The release of drives allows release of energy normally used for repression. This is expressed as laughter.

Most joke techniques are pleasurable in themselves: they can allow for childish, irrational thinking. They can be an expression of unacceptable sexual and aggressive impulses in a socially acceptable manner. They represent a relaxing of inhibitions. Thus it has been noted that jokes express ’the voice within us that rebels against the demands of morality’.

Psychologists working in this area have come up with a number of testable hypotheses:

• Those finding aggressive jokes funniest will be those in whom aggression is normally repressed.

• Those finding sexual jokes funniest will be those whose sexuality is normally repressed.

• Psychopaths should not find jokes amusing, as they have no need to lift their repression in this way.

• Since most wit is hostile, wits will tend to have powerful unconscious aggression.

• Joke deprivation should cause increased dreaming and/or direct expression of impulses.

Humour may have many social functions. It can help engender a sense of playfulness which in turn can help creativity. It can boost morale and help bind teams together. It certainly can help in all social occasions like dreary meetings. It can defuse conflict, open up dialogues and allow difficult and subtle things to be said while allowing everyone to save face. It can help people connect quickly and build rapport. It is particularly important in customer service situations.


Those psychologists interested in taxonomizing humour have found very different groups. Whether it is visual or verbal humour, there appear to be quite different categories of jokes and stories that are thought of as funny. Four groups seem very clear:

Nonsense humour: Whether jokes, shaggy dog stories or cartoons, these all rely on tricks like puns or incongruous inconsistent situations.

Satire: This refers to jokes or stories that are funny because they take the Mickey out of and attempt to ridicule particular people, groups, organizations or institutions.

Aggressive humour: This works for certain people and can show (particularly in cartoons) pictures of violence, torture and even sadism as well as verbal insults.

Sexual humour: This of course refers to subtle or explicit sexual jokes from crude to vulgar depending on your taste.


There is much evidence that both laughter and humour ratings are socially influenced: when we hear others laughing or smiling, especially friends, we are more prone to do such actions ourselves. We tend to smile more if we think that our friends are watching the same funny material. This illustrates the concept of the social mediation of laughter. Indeed, there is increasing evidence that males are the best ’laughter-getters’, that males are attracted to females who laugh in their presence, and that females are attracted to males who make them laugh.

Such compelling evidence became the foundation for the use of ’canned laughter’ to try and capitalize on the social nature of laughter to make the audience laugh. Canned laughter is a separate soundtrack with the sound of usually genuine audience laughter, but which is often inserted into comedies and sitcoms on television. People laugh in response to canned laughter due to an, ’automatic, non-thinking conformity’. The laughter of others in the audience, in a sense, provides ’social proof’ that the material being presented actually is humorous.


Humour is widely used in advertising, with approximately 15 to 40 per cent of television advertisements consisting of humorous materials to some extent. It has been proposed that using humour in advertisements could enhance affective responses such as advertisement appeal/enjoyment, positive attitudes towards the advertisements and the advertised brands.

It is thought that humorous advertisements have more persuasive power as they distract audiences. Many studies have found significant positive relationships between humorous advertisements and audiences’ memory recall and attitudes. Emotional advertisements, such as those containing humour content, are more likely to be remembered and associated with positive attitudes. However, it all depends on the nature of the product or service being sold, the style and type of humour and the audience. Yet the fact that so many adverts contain humour suggests the marketing people have good evidence that it works.


Furnham, A., Gunter, B., & Walsh, D. (1998). Effects of programme context on memory of humorous television commercials. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 12(6), 555—67.

Raskin, V., & Ruch, W. (2008). The Primer of Humour Research. New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Wanzer, M.B., Booth-Butterfield, M., & Booth-Butterfield, S. (1996). Are funny people more popular? An examination of humor orientation, loneliness, and social attraction. Communication Quarterly, 44, 42—52.