There are many reasons why people find something humorous; these are reflected in the large number of theories on the subject. Humor has been related to aggression, incongruity, and surprise. The cognitive psychologist's interest in the subject is usually related to the notion that humor stems from a resolution of incongruity.
For example, consider this joke by W.C. Field. "Do you believe in clubs for children?" "Only when kindness fails". To explain such humour, Schultz(1974) offered a three step theory of processing. In the first stage, the listener notices the incorrect interpretation of the ambiguous element (clubs = social groups). In the second step, the incorrect element of incongruity is processed ( "only when kindness fails"). In the final stage the hidden meaning of the ambiguous element is perceived (clubs = sticks). The incongruity resolution theory explains the fact that a joke previously encountered will seem less funny on subsequent exposure.
Similarly, Freud (1905, in Minsky 1985) suggested that humorous stories are a way of fooling our internal censors. A joke's power comes from a description that fits two different frames at once. The first meaning must be transparent and innocent, while the second meaning is disguised and reprehensible. Minsky (1985) relates humor to some general properties governing the interactions between agents in a society of mind that he relates to Freud's notion of censors.
Although most cognitive psychologists have not extended their theorizing to humor, it does have an important cognitive aspect. In particular, cognitive theory helps provide an explanation of why verbal jokes are found amusing by looking at the comprehension processes involved.
- Kristal, L. (Ed.). (1981). ABC of psychology. London: Multimedia Publications.
- Minsky, M. (1985). The society of mind. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
- Schultz, T.R. (1974). Order and processing in humor appreciation. Canadian Journal of Psychology, 28, 409-420.