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laughter isn’t necessarily funny

May 16, 2011

Five Leading Theories for Why We Laugh—and the Jokes That Prove Them Wrong

[Slate] “It’s funny because it’s true.”

There are a lot of theories, like this one, that try to explain why we find things funny. But like the blind man’s description of the elephant, most of them are only partially right.

In their recently published book Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind, Matthew Hurley, Daniel Dennett, and Reginald Adams Jr.—a cognitive scientist, a philosopher, and a psychologist—set out to discover a grand unified theory of humor. That theory would properly address questions such as: Why do only humans seem to have humor? Why do we communicate it with laughter? How can puns and knock-knock jokes be in the same category as comic insults? Why does timing matter in joke telling? And, of course, what are the necessary and sufficient conditions for a thing to be funny?

In brief, the researchers assert that humor serves an evolutionary purpose: In comprehending the world, we sometimes commit too soon to conclusions we’ve jumped to; the humor emotion, mirth, rewards us for figuring out where we’ve made such mistakes. In developing this view, the authors considered—but ultimately had to discard—some long-cherished theories. Here, they present five such hypotheses—plus the jokes that demonstrate that they don’t hold water (go to list)


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