Apes, babies, and people everywhere (with the possible exception of Switzerland) enjoy humor. But why is humor so prevalent? And why is it so pleasurable? Why do we seek spouses, friends, books, movies, television programs, websites, and LOL cat photographs that make us laugh?
Most likely, humor is ubiquitous and enjoyable because it somehow enhances our evolutionary fitness. Humor is a psychological state characterized by (1) the positive emotion of amusement and (2) the tendency to laugh. Both positive emotion and laughter offer adaptive benefits. I address each in turn.
Unlike negative emotions, which are typically triggered by immediate threats, positive emotions tend to occur in benign situations. The absence of an immediate danger allows people to focus on broader problems and stimulates creative thinking and rehearsal (typically experienced as daydreaming, planning, or play). Thus, positive emotions allow people to concentrate on important, but less pressing concerns, like how to smoke an entire pack of cigarettes at once.
Unlike other positive emotions, humor is associated with a specific behavioral response: laughter. Laughter is one of the few forms of communication that developed before speech (more on this in a forthcoming post by Pete). Babies laugh. So do chimpanzees and possibly even rats. Pre-language communication is severely limited. Each of the dozen or so unique messages conveyed through grunts and other monosyllabic vocalizations, like laughter, had to be as important and informative as possible. Given this, it makes sense that not all benign situations (and their accompanying positive emotions) trigger laughter. There is rarely value in telling others everything is okay. This information is only useful when there is some ambiguity of threat.
Indeed, the situations in which our evolutionary ancestors laugh, like chasing, play fighting, and tickling, all involve feigned aggression. The development of culture and language likely expanded the threats potentially triggering laughter. Instead of merely laughing at tickle attacks we could enjoy more sophisticated forms of humor, like flatulence, dead baby jokes, and the scene below.
Humor is prevalent and enjoyable because it evolved to help people mentally and behaviorally adjust when an apparent threat (i.e., a violation) ends up being benign. Humor provides a way to cope with the hypothetical threats, remote concerns, minor set backs, social faux pas, cultural misunderstandings and other benign violations people regularly experience. Of course, Pete and I are not the first to suggest this. What balding white guy sparking up a nostalgia joint could forget J.W. Buffett’s renowned hypothesis, “If we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane”?