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It's said that the quickest way to kill a joke is to explain it, but scientists are still interested in finding out just what tickles our brains and makes us find something funny.

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[INTRO ♪].

If you're anything like me, you laugh at some weird stuff. Like, there's just something hilarious about cats doing basically anything and really good chemistry puns.

But not everyone laughs at the same things. People have been trying to figure out what makes something funny for thousands of years—and we might finally be able to explain it. Over the centuries, there have been plenty of hypotheses about why stuff makes us laugh, and they all explain at least part of the picture.

There's one idea called superiority theory, which says we laugh at misfortunes and shortcomings that make us feel better than other people. It dates all the way back to Aristotle and Plato, and it covers some kinds of humor— like if your rival football team blows the championship— but it definitely doesn't explain them all. So in the 1700s, a new idea called relief theory was introduced.

It was originally about how humor supposedly relieved tension caused by fluids in your body, but it's more well-known because of what Freud added to it. Two hundred years later, he basically said that humor is a way to let out pent-up energy that's often used to repress emotions or sexual and violent desires. Because it's Freud, so why not?

Sure, that would explain dirty jokes, but it still wouldn't explain why we laugh at innocent puns. Another idea that started around the 1700s— and that makes a lot more sense— is incongruity theory, which says something is funny when it surprises us. The setup leads us to expect one thing, but the punchline gives us something completely different.

It seems reasonable, but studies have shown that surprise alone isn't enough to make us laugh. In one study from 1974, jokes that were predictable were actually rated as funnier than jokes that weren't. In 2010, a study finally proposed an idea with some promise: the benign violation theory.

It says that something must be both in violation of an accepted social norm and relatively harmless to make us laugh. So, inappropriate, but not that terrible. The researchers did a number of studies as they were developing this.

In one of them, about 70 people were asked to consider pairs of scenarios— one that violated a norm and one that didn't. One example involved the mother of the bride at a wedding. In one scenario, she gave the bartenders extra tips, like good moms do.

And in the other, she stole all the cash and pocketed the tips herself. Some people didn't laugh at either option, but the scenario that violated the norm— in this case, the mom stealing money at her daughter's wedding— was rated as way funnier than the one that didn't. What's cool about this idea is that it can also explain why things aren't funny.

Basically, if something is too harmless, it's boring, but if it's too big of a violation, it's offensive. And whether or not a joke crosses that line often depends on how much the subject hits close to home, or how much it means to you. In a 2012 study by the same team, 90 participants read two scenarios about a woman who accidentally donated money to a cause.

She texted a hotline number but didn't realize that the donations would end up on her cell phone bill at the end of the month. In one scenario, she accidentally spent $50. In another, she spent $2000.

The participants were asked to imagine that the woman was either a close friend or a stranger. When they imagined her as a friend, the $50 mishap was funny. But the $2000 mistake was too serious to laugh at.

Meanwhile, when the woman was a stranger, the results were reversed: $2000 was funny, and $50 was too boring. Imagining the woman as someone who wasn't close to them meant that the violation could be a lot worse and the situation would still be hilarious, because the participants weren't invested in it. It's also why, when someone makes a joke about something you really care about, like doing well on a test, you're more likely to find it insensitive instead of funny.

And the same idea applies when someone makes a joke about a crisis. If the crisis is happening right now, the joke might be in bad taste. But years from now when the situation passes and there's been some distance, it could be funnier.

The benign violation theory can also explain why laughter makes us feel better. Humor can be a healthy way to react to hypothetical and distant threats, and it can also be a social cue that tells people that we're okay with bending the rules when it comes to a norm. Of course, not everyone agrees with this idea.

Critics argue that it works so well because it's way too broad. After all, “a violation that isn't too much of a violation” could apply to almost anything. But even if it has limitations, it's the best idea we have right now— and if you're trying to pick that perfect joke for your next icebreaker, maybe it'll help you out.

Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych, and especially to our patrons on Patreon for making it possible. If you'd like to help us keep exploring how your mind works, you can support the show at [OUTRO ♪].