Why should Social Psychology study humour?


“This I conceive to be the chemical function of humor: to change the character of our thought.”
Lin Yutang

According to the classical definition of Allport (1954) Social Psychology is considered a scientific approach to understand and explain how individual thoughts, feelings and behaviours are influenced by the real, symbolic or implicit presence of other human beings (pp. 5). From this perspective, Social Psychology studies the processes in which people interact with each other. In these spaces of interaction, fundamental psychological processes take place. Following the social psychologist Susan Fiske (2004), five core motives are needed to explain these processes: belonging, understanding, controlling, enhancing self and trusting. In this framework, humour is understood as a social event that is influenced by: belonging to a particular group, the context, and the people participating in the humorous event.

Humour is present on a daily basis and is used for a variety of functions in everyday social interactions. Specifically, humour is a way to crate meaning and establish symbolic social boundaries in a specific cultural context. When approaching from a Social Psychology point of view two central questions are key: how is information evaluated, and how do we use that information to make inferences and judgments. Consequently, it is central for Social Psychology to examine how humorous content is perceived and how is this information used in social interactions.

What makes something funny?

Following marketing professor and psychologist Peter McGraw appreciating something as humorous produces at least one of three responses: behavioural (e.g., laughing), cognitive (judging something as “funny”) or emotional (experiencing the positive emotion of amusement).

Most research considers that what make things funny in different cultures is the idea of something somehow incongruent, unusual, unexpected, surprising or extraordinary (Martin, 2007). At the same time, it is necessary to perceive that the stimulus is not serious and that it is within a relaxed context with fun cues.

Specifically, the scientific investigation of humour from a Social Psychology perspective proposes a series of challenges for psychology. For example, how is humorous communication processed? How does a sense of humour develop? What makes some people laugh more easily than others? What is the role of humour in social interactions? Can humour convey prejudiced ideas? Is there any relationship between humor and physical and psychological health? These questions are just some of the issues that show that a complete approach aimed at the description, explanation and prediction of humor must take into account very diverse areas of research within psychology.

From these considerations, it is important to recognize that humorous situations occur primarily in contexts of social interaction. People laugh and joke more when they are with others than when they are alone. There are few occasions when humor occurs alone, and these would be pseudo-social situations such as watching a television program, reading a book or remembering something funny. In social interactions human beings interact playfully, favouring relationships from a social, emotional and cognitive point of view (Bateson, 2005). This is how it can be said that the most obvious function attributed to humour is that of being a means of expressing empathy, kindness and courtesy. However, humor does not necessarily always act in a prosocial way, and in many situations it is a way of communicating offensive messages and of attacking others (Argüello et al, 2016). In other words, humour is an eminently social phenomenon that can fulfil a wide range of functions in social interaction.

What social functions can humor have?

Humorous expressions such as jokes or jokes are shaped by what is socially and culturally relevant. That is, the themes of humor refer to the way in which societies build their world and establish limits of what is considered funny or not. On the other hand, humor is used by members of different social groups with different goals and meanings. So, can it be said that humor fulfils some social function?

Following this research of Ziv (2010) it has been proposed that humour has both personal and social functions. The first function is to allow approaching social taboos, being a relatively safe means to express ideas on controversial issues. A second function would be to allow social criticism, and to ridicule institutions and individuals, thus being a means to maintain the status quo or to produce changes in the system. The third function would be to consolidate belonging to a group, as it is an important basis for social cohesion, communication and the beginning of interpersonal relationships.

A fourth function is to serve as a defence mechanism for adaptation to high intensity situations such as fear and anxiety. A final function is that of intellectual play, allowing conventional logical thinking to emerge, and where the fundamental objective is fun for fun.

It can be said then that humor has the potential to express culturally shared ideas, whether for the purpose of mere entertainment, to strengthen the social order or also with the intention of transgressing the imposed limits.

Final comments

There is plenty of interesting research in Social Psychology covering the functions and effects of the use of humour. Basically, it has been addressed that humorous communication can fulfil a variety of functions such as vindicating or rejecting responsibility for the actions committed, showing value or diminishing shame, emphasizing commitments or freeing ourselves from them (Meyer, 2000). Additionally, humor stands out as one of the preferred tools to establish relationships whether friendship, casual sex, courtship or marriage. It has also been found that it can facilitate group interaction and create expectations about others.

Also, it has been noticed that humorous advertisements attract attention and entertain consumers. Nonetheless, attempting humor is risky because consumers may be offended by failed humor attempts (Warren & McGraw, 2016).

There are several approaches to social functions of humor that reflect the importance it occupies within all manifestations of the human being. Both the production of humor, understood as a creative process, and the appreciation of it, require individual cognitive mechanisms and social processes for understanding. The study of humor particularly from social psychology necessarily refers to the analysis of the dynamics between and within groups, as well as to investigate the intentions and effects that can generate different types of humor.

By Catalina Argüello Gutiérrez, PhD.
Social Psychologist and member of the The International Society for Humor Studies (ISHS).


Argüello, C; Carretero-Dios, H; Willis, G.B: & Moya, M. (2018). “It’s funny if group says so”: group norms moderates disparaging humor appreciation. International Journal of Humor Research, 33, 3. doi: 10.1515/humor-2017-0055

Bateson, P. (2005). The role of play in the evolution of great apes and humans. In A. D. Pellegrini & P. K. Smith (Eds.). The nature of play: Great apes and humans (pp. 13– 24). New York: Guilford Press.

Warren, C. & McGraw, P. (2016). When Does Humorous Marketing Hurt Brands? Journal of Marketing Behavior, 2: 39–67. http://leedsfaculty.colorado.edu/mcgrawp/pdf/warren.mcgraw.2016a.pdf

Fiske, S. (2004). Social Beings: Core Motives in Social Psychology. New York: Wiley.

Martin, R. A. (2007). The psychology of humor: An integrative approach. California, USA: Elsevier Academic Press. doi: 10.1016/B978-012372564-6/50017-4

Meyer, J. C. (2000). Humor as a double-edged sword: Four functions of humor in communication. Communication Theory, 10(3), 310–331. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2885.2000.tb00194.

Ziv, A. (2010). The social function of humor in interpersonal relationships. Society, 47(1), 11–18. doi:10.1007/s12115-009-9283-9

Why should Social Psychology study humour? was last modified: June 10th, 2019 by MIUC
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