The Benign Violation Theory

The Humor Research Lab uses the Benign Vio­la­tion The­o­ry as its the­o­ret­i­cal foundation.

In col­lab­o­ra­tion with Caleb War­ren, McGraw has been devel­op­ing and test­ing a gen­er­al the­o­ry of humor called the benign vio­la­tion the­o­ry. The the­o­ry builds on work by a lin­guist, Tom Veatch, and inte­grates exist­ing humor the­o­ries to pro­pose that humor occurs when and only when three con­di­tions are sat­is­fied: (1) a sit­u­a­tion is a vio­la­tion, (2) the sit­u­a­tion is benign, and (3) both per­cep­tions occur simul­ta­ne­ous­ly. For exam­ple, play fight­ing and tick­ling, which pro­duce laugh­ter in humans (and oth­er pri­mates), are benign vio­la­tions because they are phys­i­cal­ly threat­en­ing but harm­less attacks.

A strength of the the­o­ry is that it also explains when things are not fun­ny: a sit­u­a­tion can fail to be fun­ny because it depicts a vio­la­tion that does not simul­ta­ne­ous­ly seem benign, or because it depicts a benign sit­u­a­tion that has no vio­la­tion. For exam­ple, play fight­ing and tick­ling cease to elic­it laugh­ter either when the attack stops (strict­ly benign) or becomes too aggres­sive (malign vio­la­tion). Jokes sim­i­lar­ly fail to be fun­ny when either they are too tame or too risqué.

Accord­ing to the the­o­ry, a vio­la­tion refers to any­thing that threat­ens one’s beliefs about how the world should be. That is, some­thing seems threat­en­ing, unset­tling, or wrong. From an evo­lu­tion­ary per­spec­tive, humor­ous vio­la­tions like­ly orig­i­nat­ed as threats to phys­i­cal well-being (e.g., the attacks that make up tick­ling, play fight­ing), but expand­ed to include threats to psy­cho­log­i­cal well-being (e.g., insults, sar­casm), includ­ing behav­iors that break social norms (e.g., strange behav­iors, flat­u­lence), cul­tur­al norms (e.g., unusu­al accents, most scenes from the movie Borat), lin­guis­tic norms (e.g., puns, mala­propisms), log­ic norms (e.g., absur­di­ties, non-sequiturs), and moral norms (e.g., dis­re­spect­ful behav­ior, bestiality).

How­ev­er, most things that are vio­la­tions do not make peo­ple laugh. For a vio­la­tion to pro­duce humor it also needs to be per­ceived as benign. That is, it needs to seem okay, safe, or accept­able. Research in HuRL has high­light­ed three ways that a vio­la­tion can seem benign: 1) Alter­na­tive norms (e.g., one mean­ing of a phrase in a pun doesn’t make sense, but the oth­er mean­ing does), 2) com­mit­ment to a vio­lat­ed norm (e.g., men find sex­ist jokes fun­nier than women do), and 3) psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­tance (e.g., “com­e­dy is tragedy plus time”).

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Academic Papers