Humor – The Scientific Perspective

Humor is one of the few fundamental social phenomena that has been common to all societies since the beginning of mankind. The lack of interest in the phenomenon of humor from academia is caused by the fact that the two lie in directly opposite realms: seriousness and farce. Science treats itself seriously, and hence occupies itself only with serious matters. From the perspective of science humor is a phenomenon that is inherently “not serious”, and thus not worth studying. However, the realm of humor is of great importance to the society. It is this very distinction between humor and reality, together with its “seriousness”, that makes it such a valuable commentator of the latter. Michael Mulkay, the author of “On Humour”, argued that the phenomenon is worth studying not because it’s interesting in itself but because it helps us better understand the world of “seriousness”.

The Uncrossable Line

Humor and seriousness act according to completely different rules and serve completely disparate goals. The fundamental characteristic of humor is lack of integrity that comes from the intersection of two different conceptual frameworks. Humor tends to undermine the distinction between reality and fantasy, which constitutes the basis for the world of “seriousness”. Being engaged in our everyday lives, we use the language of seriousness to communicate with others. We assume that we are dealing with objective phenomena that exist independently from ourselves and that others perceive the reality in a way that is similar to our own, as well as that everyone acts according to a predictable pattern of behavior that is based on generally acceptable and comprehensible factors. Although the serious world can be a place where unusual things take place, these are usually treated with aversion and are often interpreted as “mistakes”. It is also common to see disparate views and opinions, sometimes even by the same people and at the same time. These are, however, treated as an inadvertent mistake as it is assumed that every judgment refers to the same unique, organized and independent world. Any disparate opinions are then a result of ill-will or innocent imperfection of our perception. Any disparity in opinions should be ultimately removed.
Between reality and fantasy there lies the uncorssable line. The real world, which is exposed by humor and paradox, takes its revenge not by treating them as things unveiling the paradox nature and internal inconsistency of the social world, but as cognitive errors. Disagreement, contrast, paradox and ambiguity often occur in conversations. Moreover, everyday life would probably be impossible with linguistic ambiguity and the lack of precision. But in general these characteristic are associated with the phenomenon of communication and not with the character of the social world.

It is easier to joke about humor than seriously write about it. From a serious scientific article it is usually expected adhering to the laws of the serious world, which happen to be the very target of humor. The world of humor assumes the perception of situations or ideas in two internally consistent but mutually opposite frames of reference. A scientific treatise, on the other hand, if based on similar principles would stand no change of entering the canon of reputable scientific knowledge.

A joke is organized in such a way as to first define certain reality and undermine it unexpectedly by introducing another one, for example:


In the times of Emperor Franz Joseph I, a certain Austrian officer, handsome but poor, was trying to win favor from an elegant courtesan. In order to get rid of the unwanted suitor the courtesan explained that her heart was already taken. To that the officer replied politely: – I have never aimed that high.

The joke rests on the collision between two conventions, a metaphorical meaning of “heart” and “aiming high” with the literal, physical meaning. It implies that the interest of the officer is directed towards lower parts of the courtesan body. The officer has taken her high class language literally.

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