Interesting read, though the evolutionary psychology bit was kind of eh. In the end, I couldn’t quite make out whether this “Benign Violation Theory” is a useful concept…
[McGraw] has devised a simple, Grand Unified Theory of humor—in his words, “a parsimonious account of what makes things funny.” McGraw calls it the benign violation theory, and he insists that it can explain the function of every imaginable type of humor. And not just what makes things funny, but why certain things aren’t funny. “My theory also explains nervous laughter, racist or sexist jokes, and toilet humor,” he told his fellow humor researchers.
…Philosophers had pondered this sort of question for millennia, long before anyone thought to examine it in a lab. Plato, Aristotle, and Thomas Hobbes posited the superiority theory of humor, which states that we find the misfortune of others amusing. Sigmund Freud espoused the relief theory, which states that comedy is a way for people to release suppressed thoughts and emotions safely. Incongruity theory, associated with Immanuel Kant, suggests that jokes happen when people notice the disconnect between their expectations and the actual payoff.
But McGraw didn’t find any of these explanations satisfactory. “You need to add conditions to explain particular incidents of humor, and even then they still struggle,” he says. Freud is great for jokes about bodily functions. Incongruity explains Monty Python. Hobbes nails Henny Youngman. But no single theory explains all types of comedy. They also short-circuit when it comes to describing why some thingsaren’t funny. McGraw points out that killing a loved one in a fit of rage would be incongruous, it would assert superiority, and it would release pent-up tension, but it would hardly be hilarious.
…That is, they perceive a violation—”of personal dignity (e.g., slapstick, physical deformities), linguistic norms (e.g., unusual accents, malapropisms), social norms (e.g., eating from a sterile bedpan, strange behaviors), and even moral norms (e.g., bestiality, disrespectful behaviors)”—while simultaneously recognizing that the violation doesn’t pose a threat to them or their worldview. The theory is ludicrously, vaporously simple. But extensive field tests revealed nuances, variables that determined exactly how funny a joke was perceived to be.
…Ultimately, McGraw determined that funniness could be predicted based on how committed a person is to the norm being violated, conflicts between two salient norms, and psychological distance from the perceived violation.