Humor is a complex topic to discuss, not only because of its difficulty to measure, quantify and examine, but because of its variability as well. Humor can range from crude humor to irony, ridicule to self-deprecation, and sarcasm to puns. Furthermore, opinions on it range from seeing it as rude and arrogant to encouraging it in most situations.
Philosophers have historically considered humor to be a rude expression of arrogance. Plato, viewed it as an uncontrolled form of malice. In the Republic (388e), he writes, “[O]rdinarily when one abandons himself to violent laughter, his condition provokes a violent reaction.” In Philebus (48–50), he writes, “Taken generally, the ridiculous is a certain kind of evil, specifically a vice.” Aristotle agreed in the Nicomachean Ethics (4, 8), “Most people enjoy amusement and jesting more than they should … a jest is a kind of mockery, and lawgivers forbid some kinds of mockery—perhaps they ought to have forbidden some kinds of jesting.” This opinion that humor is an expression of arrogance is called the superiority theory. It has significant corroborating evidence, such as ridicule and the popularity of jokes focusing on idiotic people.
Jokes that demonstrate superiority are similar to this one: Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps: “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator says: “Calm down, I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says: “OK, now what?” This joke was deemed the most universally appealing by Richard Wiseman, the Professor in the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. Its humor comes from the healthy man’s idiotic reaction to the operator’s question; most people know not to kill a friend who may still be alive and realize the man’s unexpectedly idiotic mistake. Thus, this joke suggests that humor comes from a sense of superiority or the thought, “I know better”.
Alternative modern theories, such as the now-popular incongruity theory, challenge the superiority theory. The incongruity theory states that humor arises from a non-threatening surprise or incongruity. Puns, which seem to have little to do with superiority, surprise the audience with an unexpected, but safe, surprise. For example : “I said to the gym teacher: ‘Can you teach me to do the splits?’ He said: “How flexible are you?” I said: “I can’t make Tuesdays.” The humor comes from the double meaning of “flexible”; the setup leads the audience to interpret “flexible” as “possessing a full range of motion”, while the punchline uses the alternative definition “adaptable to a schedule”.
As the superiority theory loses popularity, many psychologists now believe humor is a psychological benefit. It helps people view life and problems from another perspective, promoting optimism and open-mindedness. Endorphins, a natural anti-depressant, often increase with humor, while the stress hormone cortisol tends to diminish. Humor also helps people bond with others; shared laughter reveals similarities and agreements that increase liking. Humor can be especially important for adolescents, who feel increasing social pressures and obligations.
Since so many theories and judgements regarding humor conflict, it may be more practical to recognize that nothing, including humor, has intrinsic value due to subjective experiences. So goes the proverb, one man’s trash is another’s treasure. Despite universal subjectivity and normative judgements, however, people have universal rights and others should attempt to respect them. Humor, therefore, should be judged on how it affects people.