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Why We Laugh

2011 April 14
by Eric Horowitz

Wired has a nice profile on Peter McGraw, a UC-Boulder professor who is one of the world’s leading researchers on the psychology of humor.  McGraw’s grand theory is based on the idea of “benign violations.” It holds that comedy results when the violation of something (social norms, moral norms, personal dignity, etc.) is perceived to not be a threat. Like most things, it’s all evolutionary:

McGraw believes that laughter developed as an instinctual way to signal that a threat is actually a false alarm—say, that a rustle in the bushes is the wind, not a saber-toothed tiger. “Organisms that could separate benign violations from real threats benefited greatly,” McGraw says.

The evolutionary account also explains why we enjoy comedy so much. McGraw’s notion of a violation occurs whenever our predictions are proven to be inaccurate.  If the consequence of a bad prediction is venturing into a bush filled with saber-tooth tigers, that makes bad predictions very problematic.  The result is that realizing the consequences of a predictive failure are benign leads an intense influx of positive affect.

McGraw’s blog is here.

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