An Evolutionary Take On Humor Despite the common assumption that most timespeople laugh is in response to a joke, laughter is more often a functionof the human need to feel a sense of connection to others, a way of feeling like one belongs.Studying its origin in primates can lend some meaning to the ways humans differ from theirpredecessors, and can help in the deciphering of the structure of non-human primate societies and how thelack of formal, human humor but the presence of laughter can be used to maintain bondswithin a group of individuals. Laughter as a social tool evolved far before the human concept of comedy,functions separately from it, and is very important in maintaining social order as a practicethat evolved with humans and became more specialized over time. Laughter behaviorismsare present in many species, including fennec foxes and rats, but in a more strict sense of theword, is a phenomenon particular to the primate world, an inherited practice from theancestors of humankind that has evolved over time along with the species itself(Ross, Owen,Zimmerman, 2010). The origin of laughter is not with humans, butwith a predecessor we share with chimpanzees.
Thus, studies oflaughter in chimps can be used as insight into another species’ use of laughter, especially since thelinguistic component that can be dominant with humans is lacking. There is a notabledifference between the surface characteristics of chimp laughter and human laughter—chimpanzee laughterappears more like panting and less like the concept of laughter that first comes to one’smind—but both are a vital part in maintaining connections between individuals andparticularly in chimpanzees, are important to convey a message that play behaviors can continue. It isa positive behavior, encouragement to keep playing and a signal that everything, for themoment, is okay. The variations in this vocalization range from squeaks and pants to morehuman-like iterations, the most human-like being that of orangutans(Ross et al., 2010). Orangutan squeaking is lessfrequent than the noises made by other apes, but it is a sureresponse to tickling, although the vocalizations are not as lengthy.
Laughter is not exclusive to the great apes,and has been found in studies involving tickling rats(McGraw & Warner,2014). This kind of vocalization is much more like chirping than human laughter, but is stillvalid in the sense that it is evoked from play behaviors and tickling. This particular vocalization wasmeasured at 50 kilohertz and is distinct from chirps that were made when a rat was playingwith a larger rat that had an unfair advantage and made the experience unpleasant. 50 kilohertzchirps were reserved for positive experiences, and seemed to signal happiness for the rats in away different from any other sound the rats made, as it was consistently found to have positiveassociations. Even still, when the rats were tickled, they would very clearly display theirpleasure by seeking out the gloved hands tickling them and darting towards the hand ratherthan away. These behaviors were accompanied by the chirps, and may not be a typical example oflaughter, but still fits the concept in the context of rats and the way rats are built physiologically.In another study, rats were given a choice to pick from recordings of rat noises, andoverwhelmingly, they preferred the 50 kilohertz chirping sounds—another instance where these soundssignaled positivity. Clearly, this sound is a sign ofpleasure and enjoyment, and is one ofthe more obscure permutations of laughter in species other than humans and apesthat have been discovered.
The way laughter is present in thegreat apes, particularly orangutans, is the most similar to the way it is present in humans,and has the most relevance in terms of where the practice of laughter in social contextsoriginated. Acoustically, there are ties, though in terms of the apes, laughter vocalizations are lesspresent in the exhale, and tend to have less regular vibration of the vocal chords. The differences areevident, but in both cases, laughter is present in play behavior and as a response to tickling.Through analysis of the acoustic frequency and qualities of the squeaks and other tickle-inducedsounds produced by member species of the great apes, the conclusion drawn is that the splitbetween the apes and humans caused laughing behaviorisms to evolve differently, though they canhave similar contexts and are societally very prevalent in both. Laughter develops at an early age in humans,though it is debated exactly how early—some say as early as 5 weeks, andothers say it is not present until between 6 and 8 weeks (Askenasy, 1987).
Adversely,smiling makes an appearance much earlier, and is a precursor to laughter. Even as early aspreschool, laughter is a social function. A study conducted by Kennerdine in 1931 found that over90% of the times preschoolers laughed was in the presence of others, meaning that it plays asignificant role in communication that is not necessary when the children are alone. Engaging in humor allows them tobuild connections and to communicate more effectively, and is importanteven at those early ages when the conversations children are having are not the same as onesthey will typically have when they grow older, in subject topic, style, or dynamic. As children grow up, they seek outpeople that make them laugh. Bonds are formed more easily when enjoyment between individualsis made clear, and humor can be like a language in that way—when people are smilingand laughing genuinely, it means that everything is okay.
It is very gratifying when one sayssomething intended to procure laughter and it succeeds, and the positive feedback is why thepractice prevails (Treger, Sprecher, Erber, 2013). Positive reinforcement as a response tohuman behavior is a way to be sure it will stick around. This is the way that laughter is important,since it is gratifying to both parties, it plays into the need for approval of both parties and isdoubly effective. The gratification granted by such interactions is a bonding agent that tips the scalein favor of those who know how to use humor effectively.
The principle of reciprocal liking isimportant in this case, because humans respond more positively to people they like, andif they perceive someone likes them, they are more likely to generate positive feelings towardsthat person and return the sentiment. It is a positive feedback loop that paves the way for peopleto form relationships based on perceived positivity from others. Additionally, using humorin particular can help greatly to establish liking and form closer bonds with other people(Treger et al., 2013). It is one of the tools people use in the pursuit of feeling connected toothers, and establishing closeness in a way that over time, can inspire trust. Thus, even humor hasanother layer that is not immediately apparent, and is linked to the way laughter is important inbuilding relationships. Three main theories have beendeveloped in regards to humor and why people find things funny, and there is not one inparticular that is seen as more accurate than the others.
First is the superiority theory, which positsthat when others are placed at a disadvantage or encounter misfortune, it is funny. The secondtheory is the benign violation theory; when one’s dignity is violated in a way that is clearlynot a threat, and is ultimately inconsequential, people will laugh. The third theory is the incongruityand incongruity resolution theory, which in its essence is the idea that when someone is expectinga certain outcome and gets another instead, it will make them laugh. Such is the idea behindanti-jokes, which take well-known jokes, knock-knock jokes included, and flip them on theirhead by giving a too serious answer that is distinctively not what one is expecting. A common exampleof an anti-joke is: “What is blue and smells like red paint? Blue paint.” They are a form ofcomedy entirely their own, and though not everyone enjoys them, their startling but logicalanswers are often laughter-provoking.
Not every person will enjoy everyjoke—comedy is subjective—but in certain cases, people will laugh at jokes thatthey do not even understand. It is a facet of social conformity that has been studied since the 1940swith many originators and much dispute as to which person was the one who invented the test, andit involves the human need to belong and be accepted within a group. One participant would beplaced with a group of actors who would chat briefly to loosen them up, and then one of the actorswould tell a joke that was clearly nonsensical, and the group would laugh as though theyunderstood. The style of joke told would come to be known as a “no soap, radio” joke, because that wasthe punchline in each joke though the beginning could vary. Most of the time, the participantwould laugh along with the group, and if probed about why they laughed, sometimes they could evencome up with a logical explanation for why they laughed, even though it was just a nonsensejoke.
Studies such as this show how the content of humor takes a backseat to the socialcomponent of telling jokes and engaging with other people in ways that are meant to make them laugh.It is the bonding that is important, not the content. Laughter in the form of comedy isnot the most important necessarily, though it is often the first kind to come to mind whenone thinks about the instances in which laughter would occur and has nuances that shouldnot be overlooked, subtleties about its evolution that are not as well known as the concept itself.It is much more rooted in a need to belong and a need to maintain bonds as social beings,and developed with the human species but not as a practice unique to humans. It was the mostobviously present in the great apes, however; others, like rats, exhibit behavior that has a similarfunction to laughter.
It may not be a universal experience among all creatures, not much is,but it is a multifaceted concept with more functionalities than meet the eye. It has nuances thatcan be explored through concepts within the realm of social psychology, and has applications inother fields of psychology as well, in terms of the way laughter affects peopleand the people they spend time with.?