Posted in Psychology of Art
January 27, 2021

How Humor Works – A Clear Proposal For A Classic Question, Part 4 (E. Garrett Ennis)

The following is the fourth of a four-part series. The first can be found herethe second here, the third here.


Another unique property of Status Loss Theory is that, in addition to demonstrating a logical evolutionary purpose, it fits easily with our common understanding of humor, and particularly with a lot of sayings we associate with the subject, thus uniting the theory with our natural use and experience of it.

“Brevity is the soul of wit.” The best jokes and humor tend to spring from quick moments and short, sharp statements (“punchlines”). There are at least two logical and natural reasons for this within our theory.

For one, laughter results when the brain itself senses the quality-gap. Not when it’s told there is one. Thus, a snapped off punchline that doesn’t include too much information functions like the mother bird throwing her baby out of the nest to make it use its wings. It causes our brain, as the listener, to work for itself to make the final connection, and if in doing so, we feel the quality-gap in the right way, we laugh.

Secondly, and this is key to mockery, the less one speaks, the less you seem to have worked to come up with the idea. Therefore, if I respond to someone with a very quick statement that immediately exposes a weakness in what they said, it looks as though that weakness was very easy to see, and as a result, the target looks even worse for missing something so easy.

Combining these two has the dual effect of increasing the audience’s likelihood of recognizing the error themselves, and further lowering the quality seen in the target, thus greatly magnifying the resulting humor.

“I’m just joking.” Stated in various ways. This is commonly said in response to someone getting angry at being mocked or playfully insulted. But our theory states that laughter primarily functions to lower someone’s status, therefore, we do often laugh at other people’s expense.

Thus it would seem that the person’s anger is justified. So why would people claim to be joking as a sign that the person shouldn’t be angry?

Well, as we’ve said, there’s a large branch of humor that revolves around saying things you don’t really mean solely to allow people to laugh at the thought of it really being said. But beyond that, when people actually claim to be “just joking,” or “just kidding,” they’re also referencing the low anxiety aspect of humor, and particularly how it is meant to peacefully establish the social order. So what they’re identifying is that they themselves feel no anger or anxiety and intend no serious threat by what they said.

Of course, some people use this as an excuse to conceal actually angry insults or attempts to embarrass someone else outside of the context of exposing real errors that others will notice and agree upon. This is clearly what Bart was doing above.

“Quick-witted.” A common compliment to someone’s intellect. This generally refers to the person’s ability to spot subtle errors and quickly find methods to expose them, especially ones that are subtle enough to make other people, who haven’t yet seen it, realize the error themselves, but noticeable enough that they recognize that there’s a joke in the first place.

Doing so without being forced or insulting also requires a good feel for people’s social boundaries (or having familiar people around you). A “quick-witted” person has these things figured out, or can do so spontaneously in the right moment. In a similar vein…

“Comedic timing.” In addition to using brevity well, “comedic timing” seems to be clearly a matter of recognizing moments where expectations reach the right height to be deflated by the right comment or action and thus create the most humor.

For example, a writer with good comedic timing would probably realize instinctively that it’s funnier in a scene for a taxi cab to pass someone immediately after they step out with their hand-raised and reach for the cab’s door, showing not just that they missed the cab, but that the person thought incorrectly that the cab was stopping for them.
In this case, if the cab passes too early, then the person hasn’t shown that they expect the cab to come (so they themselves look less foolish and you lose that potential quality-gap for viewers). Thus, if it’s necessary for the character to miss the cab, a natural sense of comedy and comedic timing would pick up on how and when to do it to add a laugh to the scene.

“Laughter is the best medicine.” A classic saying, which comes from the observation that laughter releases pleasure chemicals in the brain. This fits naturally with the Status Loss Theory, which predicts logically that laughter causes smiles and pleasure to allow us to form social orders peacefully, with clear signals of no threat to each other, and feelings that lower our stress and aggression.

In addition, laughter is one of the few universal and natural ways to make someone feel those positive things. You can’t say, for example, that ping-pong is the best medicine, because not everyone enjoys ping-pong. But laughter, and its inherent pleasurable effects, are hard-wired into all of our brains.

The phrase can also refer to using laughter to “get over” one’s problems or distance themselves from them. As we’ve said, if a person feels too much anxiety they won’t laugh, but once the anxiety lowers, a strong enough joke (as we show by the equation, a large enough numerator can overcome a large denominator) can cause you to laugh at the problem.

This works extremely well because it goes beyond someone else telling us that our problem isn’t that big a deal, and instead, assuming the joke works, it causes our brain to see this itself. This comes from, as said, the natural way our humor instinct functions.

“Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.” This quote is from the political book “Rules for Radicals,” but reflects many other sayings about the effectiveness of ridicule in discrediting one’s enemies and dealing with irrationality. The book adds that “it’s hard to counterattack ridicule,” and that it may cause your enemies to become angry and thus be further discredited.

Naturally, since humor (and thus ridicule) is the in-born instinct that causes us to stop following a particular person or idea, it fits well as a tool in political battles. Especially because humor functions through independent verification by the other people who see the ridiculed thing.

Again, each brain that laughs observes the thing and makes its own connection, so deceiving other people into laughing is very difficult, and thus collective laughter is very likely to have identified a real mistake

It’s difficult to counterattack this because there is no real argument offered by the laughter. It is only acknowledgement that people feel they’ve found something wrong. On top of this, the low anxiety that is also communicated by laughter and ridicule makes the person telling the joke come off as being non-violent and thus more socially acceptable, on top of being clever for having recognized the ridiculed thing in the first place.

An angry response by the ridicule’s target will only show the opposite in him. Thus, a politician or politically-oriented person who is clever enough to use ridicule will reap many rewards.

“You had to be there.” Most people have said this at some time. As we’ve said above about timing, these circumstances often depend on the expectation that existed at that moment, sometimes even due to micro-expressions that change our feelings in the situation without us even realizing it, and which we may leave out in later descriptions of the moment.

Let’s use, for an example, “Afro Ninja,” the classic viral video from which we took the above frames. A huge part of the humor is the Ninja’s oh-so- confident head-nod before he attempts a backflip and falls flat on his face.

The nod sets up a higher-expectation for him that increases the humor when he falls. Furthermore, he gets up immediately after, indicating that he’s not seriously hurt, though he does attempt, awkwardly, to continue his martial arts routine while stumbling off the screen.

If someone had seen this in person and laughed, then described it later, they might focus on the face-plant on the ground, without mentioning the head nod and that he got right back up.

The listener may then picture something pretty brutal and see the storyteller as more of a jerk then anything else for laughing. Thus, these surrounding elements clearly can change moments, whether we know it at the time or not.

“I didn’t see that coming.” In the equation, there are multiple elements that, if highly- perceived, can play the main part in creating laughter (as long as the others aren’t 0 and the anxiety isn’t too high). It turns out that we actually have several sayings that describe situations where a particular part of the equation is the strongest contributor to the humor.

In this case, “I didn’t see that coming” refers to humor where high quality expectation (Qe) matters most, or in other words, when something violates our most base and unquestioned assumptions.

“It’s just so wrong!” This phrase naturally indicates that the Quality Displayed (Qd) aspect of the equation is doing most of the heavy-lifting in causing the reaction. In this case, we may not have a particularly high expectation of what’s going on, but what we see is so totally low-quality or incorrect that it causes huge laughter anyway.

A likely example of this is from the movie “I’m Gonna Git U Sucka,” where a montage of 80’s “inner-city” life is shown, followed by a car driving by in the background with a police boot still attached to the back tire, which is dragging on the ground and making sparks. Even after the previous montage, it’s so wrong that it makes me laugh now just being reminded of it.

“It’s funny because it’s true.” As you might have figured, this phrase identifies when validity is the most powerful aspect of the humor response. Observational comics, like Chris Rock (above) specialize in this type of humor, in which the “Quality Expectation” always comes from the real world and isn’t manipulated or set-up beforehand as a fictional scenario where it can be knocked-down more easily.

The payoff for meeting this challenge is that any errors found come off as automatically highly valid to the audience. But by the same token, it doesn’t offer any practice in making fictional scenarios come off believably. This explains why Chris Rock has always struggled a bit in skit or fictional comedy, from Saturday Night Live to his movie projects. But on-stage, he remains one of the greatest observational comics that’s ever performed.

“I was in a silly mood.” Generally, this reflects scenarios where someone’s anxiety is at its lowest levels. On top of it, once we laugh at one thing, it seems that we become extra attuned to our environment and are expecting or looking for further funny things around us.

Furthermore, there’s a noted “contagious” effect to laughter that can also cause someone in a group of laughing people to feel this way. Comedy Clubs are known to take advantage of this phenomenon by using solid walls that cause any laughter in the room to echo and thus sound more prominent.

The natural reason for this, within Status Loss Theory, is that signs of mass pleasure and non-threat in a group would logically cause anyone there to instinctively feel less anxiety themselves, and thus laugh far more easily

“It’s so bad it’s good.” A common quality of cult films, but one that almost always occurs unintentionally, and is extremely difficult to do otherwise. The reason for this is a concept we outlined in the first paper, which is the four distinct types of humorous laughter (first person, second person, third person known and third-person unknown) which are often confused.

In a normal comedy, the humor is “third-person known,” laughing at the movie characters. But in “so bad it’s good,” the laughter is actually “second person,” at the director for failing so miserably. Thus, nothing in these movies needs to actually work on its own, and actually, the less they work, the better, since we laugh at each new moment that falls gloriously flat.

Furthermore, there has to be validity in the terribleness of the movie for this to work. We have to feel, down to the tiniest things we observe (which is much more then we consciously realize) that the director genuinely tried and doesn’t know how bad the movie is.

This probably makes it clear why it’s so rare for this to actually occur, and also explains why purposefully bad “wink wink” movies (also known as “camp”) fail very often.

You may have noticed in these above entries that the same ideas occur repeatedly. This is because the core idea of humor is not that complicated. The equation, ((Qe-Qd)NV) / A, consists of only 5 variables, and any complexity only comes from confusions between the different types of laughter, and the many ways those variables show up in the things we notice.

This list should presumably help to demonstrate a lot of those ways, and we can move on.


Here, we’ll move outside of the various expressions of the humor equation and our humor instinct, and go into some surrounding issues, questions, and ramifications of it.

“Validity” vs. “Believability.” In the earliest forms of the humor equation, we used the term “believability,” but in the course of refining it, we realized that “believability” didn’t actually describe the requirement well and it needed to be changed. Mainly because a lot of clearly funny humor triggers off of things that are not actually happening in reality, and instead require that the brain senses that they are errors that could potentially be made.

In a lot of cases of humor, this is identical to “believability,” but the subtle difference matters most, and is probably easiest to explain, in the case of puns. In those, and in misplacement in general, the brain is not judging whether or not someone in front of us has genuinely made the misplacement it has observed. It already assumes that people are involved the moment it senses a pattern, and instead simply judges the degree of the misplacement.

If this degree is high enough, meaning the thing has a lot in common with where it is (creating the level of pattern expectation), but is still noticeably wrong, then the requirement is fulfilled (making it valid) and we laugh without any double-check as to whether a person actually did it.

Now, the reason for this, and what makes it especially interesting, is in what it reveals about the origins of our humor instinct, which is that it clearly evolved not only before language, but also before we had higher brain functions that allowed hypothetical scenarios or sophisticated deception.

Our humor instinct comes from a part of our brain that was evolutionarily programmed in a time where our intellect expressed itself in terms of “A,” then “B”, and get “C.” Put the animal in the fire, wait until it smells good, then eat it. Grab the stick, hit the branch, and the fruit will fall.

In this time, any sequence of organization was done by another person for a clear purpose. Thus, the organized patterns we observed were all already attempts by our peers to get things done, and our brains needed only to check for a disturbance in the pattern to know already that someone screwed up. The need for the misplaced thing to have something in common with its surroundings is only our brain recognizing that there is a pattern in the first place.

Obviously as we’ve shown, a large portion of “modern” humor does involve hypothetical scenarios, but this aspect of our sense of misplacement indicates that those abstract imaginings connect to something much more basic in our instincts.

Why we aren’t all violent psychopaths. Given that the Status Loss Theory proposes an evolutionary advantage to humor and laughter, based in demoting people’s status, it may seem that anyone who is resistant to this demotion, particularly through displaying violent tendencies, would have an evolutionary advantage

This would be because their violence would cause anxiety and nullify other people’s urge to laugh at them. But that makes little sense, since laughter has been a core part of our social instincts for thousands of generations and yet we’re not all hair-trigger lunatics. So what gives?

Well, the way things actually work out, the violent tendency that would protect one from laughter under this theory would actually not spread due to other factors. Mainly, that people with this violent temperament inevitably became outcasts from the social group. These people didn’t reproduce and thus any gene that might have led to this trait was rarely passed on.

Why do comedians curse so damn much? Comedians have been associated with profane comments and jokes for a very long time. Some, like Andrew Dice Clay, have used it to great comedic effect, while in many other cases, curses seem to come off like a substitute for an actual good joke. What makes the difference?

It’s in the meaning that people take from the profanity. When it creates laughs, (by itself), it’s due to the disrespect for social convention that the comedian is showing. The expectation is that he won’t act that way due to the social pressures from most of society, and by casually flouting that, he makes it look like a weak and meaningless barrier.

Take for example, one of Andrew Dice Clay’s most famous dirty jokes, a nursery rhyme (youtube.com/watch?v=CFAnaixvZFY, NSFW). If you can’t play it, it’s “Little Miss Muffet, sat on a tuffet, eating her curds and whey. Along came a spider who sat down beside her and said ‘Hey, what’s in the bowl, b***?'” There’s clearly no humor here other than the actual profanity, which serves as the punchline almost entirely by itself.

It should demonstrate clearly that the expectation of “clean language” here is heightened to the maximum by using the nursery rhyme form, followed by casually tossing that context, and all the social expectations associated with it, away at the end. The entire “character” of Andrew Dice Clay was based on disrespecting these conventions, including not starting his set when the audience expected it, and smoking, hacking and clearing his throat into the microphone.

Anyway, when it comes to this type of profane humor, one of the keys to the audience’s appreciation of this is that they have low anxiety associated with the breaking of these conventions. People who feel the conventions are justified, perhaps due to being older, or who have children or are concerned about what children may hear and so on, likely feel much more anxiety in regards to these conventions being broken, and won’t laugh nor appreciate it. The same can be true of gleeful farts, or “mooning” other people, and these similar signs of disrespect will be unappreciated by the same people who dislike profanity in comedy

On the other hand, cursing is an easy thing to notice in a comedian’s repertoire, and very easy for anyone else to do. Thus, you’ll see many inexperienced or amateur comedians simply cursing up a storm without any real purpose to it. This obviously doesn’t work, and comedians who do it well don’t rely solely on it.

Lenny Bruce used his audience’s acceptance of broken social convention to offer commentary on topics, like religion and race, that no one else would touch. Similarly, “Black Comedy” and “Roasting” now also play off the great amounts of humor that can be mined from otherwise anxious-topics, when people agree beforehand that those lines will be crossed without offense.

Andrew Dice Clay occasionally found insights into sex and similar topics that sprung from this acceptance, and also used his rare charisma to keep people entertained after the nursery rhymes were over.

Let’s note further here that other quirks of humor, like “say a line once, it’s funny, say it again, it’s less funny, keep saying it, it’s not funny, keep saying it, it becomes funny again,” come from repetition of the joke eventually becoming a disrespect for the social convention that creates new humor. This hopefully further shows how the context in which we receive a line, even when it’s exactly the same line said more than once, is key to the humor we feel from it.

Maniacal Laughter. This is frequently used in storytelling to show the extreme evilness or derangement of a particular character. This is because, when it comes to humor and our social instincts, someone’s laughter gives us clues about what does or doesn’t cause them anxiety.

In the case of maniacal laughter, it will almost always come in a case where the villain has done or experienced something that causes extreme anxiety in normal people, such as hurting someone, or being in extreme pain themselves. When we see the villain laughing heartily at these moments, it indicates that his emotional circuitry is highly abnormal, and thus that he or she is dangerously insane.

The above image is from Alan Moore’s Batman graphic novel The Killing Joke. It depicts the moment when the Joker emerges from falling into a chemical vat and discovers his own skin disfigurement for the first time. Rather than be horrified, he laughs voraciously, indicating his insanity in exactly this way.

Associative Laughter. There are many circumstances where we will laugh extra hard at seemingly slight things, even when there is no apparent joke to others, and beyond even what we might expect from just having very low anxiety (as discussed under “silly moods” above). There are several circumstances where this might occur.

First, in general, heavy laughter can sharpen one’s awareness for low-quality things and thus make it easier for them to notice and laugh at other humor, similar to the way a bump in the night can sharpen your awareness of threatening things.

On top of that, once a comedian has established a sufficiently good reputation, the mere knowledge of them addressing another subject may make you start to laugh just from suddenly becoming aware that that subject was ripe for that level of humor. Simply being among the vulnerable subjects that that comedian mocks will lower that person or thing’s status.

Lastly, there’s the idea of “callbacks,” where a simple phrase can remind us of a previously humorous moment or joke and make us laugh again. In these cases, the thing in question may have regained some status or quality expectation simply by us only hearing the joke once and having moved onto something else, and being reminded, even with a single word or phrase, of that previous joke makes us laugh again at the memory of the original joke.

If that “callback” is structured as a pun or well-done misplacement, we can have a layered result where we laugh even stronger. But eventually, our feeling of “Quality Expectation” (Qe) will adjust downward and our laughter will reduce to nothing.

As an aside, it may be good to note here that the moment after some good mockery, when we might sigh and make a comment like “what a moron,” is the exact result of our expectations adjusting downward.

Fake Laughter. A classic canard of the comedic co-host. Though often for them it’s a necessity to help a show come off well, people engage in fake laughter in general as an attempt to partake in the surrounding positive social results of people sharing a sense of humor.

When two people find the same things funny, it indicates that several of their perspectives on the world are similar, particularly, what they expect to be high value, what they find to be low value or are aware is low value, the amount of subtlety that they can handle in what they notice, the types of things they feel are believable, and what does or doesn’t make them feel anxiety.

Laughing at the same time as someone else, or at someone else’s jokes, is a way of trying to represent or achieve this type of type of intellectual common ground with another person. It also can achieve closeness by demonstrating that you are no threat to the desired person or people, or that you feel no anger or threat from your own errors or jokes at your expense and thus are more socially acceptable.

In other circumstances, we may force out fake laughter when we feel nervous as a way of trying to lower the anxiety of a tense situation. Note though that this “nervous laughter” which occurs under high anxiety is, of course, not the real thing.

Flirting with Humor. The same social closeness that can be sought through fake laughter is used just as often to demonstrate closeness with boys or girls that a person may find attractive. However, there are other aspects unique to demonstrations of humor that come into play in dating and romance.

For one, joking in very subtle manners can be a strong indication of one’s knowledge and intellect to a potential mate. In addition, it is an introductory of giving pleasurable feelings to the other person, which can show a capability to give pleasure in other ways. Obviously of course also, as mentioned above, the ability to show low anxiety and threat to a girl is very important for a man who potentially wants to win her trust.

Humor in Animals. As we mentioned in the previous paper, other species of ape, as well as even dogs and similar social animals with breath control also display various forms of laughter. The sense of humor in the other primates has been shown to be almost entirely based on slapstick (news.discovery.com/human/evolution/apes-laughter-humans-evolution-120920), which results from falls and other types of physical failure.

This is logical under the Status Loss Theory, since apes would obviously base their social orders primarily on physical fitness and thus demote each other mainly for physical failures.

Laughter in dogs has been found to occur during certain types of play with their masters and, appropriately enough, to have anxiety-reducing effects. This likely indicates the properties of the humor instinct can extend beyond humans, and are thus a much deeper and inextricable part of our social instincts, our pleasure, and our lives.

Hopefully, as originally stated, this paper established the far-reaching explanatory power of the Status Loss Theory of Humor. Perhaps also, it was able to lay the groundwork for the theory’s function as a potential logical basis for investigating and understanding humor in all of its forms in the future. I imagine this could be extremely useful and uniquely important to this branch of social and evolutionary psychology.

E. Garrett Ennis is a writer, vlogger, and columnist with an academic background in philosophy who has published widely on the subject of irrationality and has a popular YouTube channel known as StoryBrain.

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