Humor Research

Peter McGraw’s early research examined the interplay of judgment, emotion, and choice, with an emphasis on moral judgment, mixed emotions, and behavioral economics. More recently, he has examined the antecedents and consequences of humor—work that has helped move the study of humor from the niche to the mainstream. One advantage that he has over his predecessors is his ability to conduct state-of-the-art experiments with the help of the team he directs at the Humor Research Lab (aka HuRL). With Caleb Warren, he has developed a theory of humor: The Benign Violation Theory.


The Humor Research Lab (aka HuRL) is dedicated to the scientific study of humor, its antecedents, and its consequences. The lab’s theoretical and methodological base is in the interdisciplinary fields of emotion and judgment and decision making, with an emphasis in social and cognitive psychology.

Benign Violation Theory

The benign violation theory explains humorous responses to a broad range of situations. The theory suggests that humor occurs when a person simultaneously appraises a situation as wrong or threatening some way (i.e., a violation) and yet appraises the situation to be okay or acceptable in some way (i.e., benign). Play fighting and tickling are prototypical examples of benign violations because both are physically threatening but harmless attacks.

A particular strength of the theory is that it predicts when things are not funny: a situation can fail to be humorous because it depicts a violation that does not simultaneously seem benign, or because it depicts a benign situation that has no violation. For example, play fighting and tickling cease to elicit laughter either when the attack stops (strictly benign) or becomes too aggressive (malign violation). Jokes similarly fail to be funny when either they are too tame or too risqué.

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