Social Boundary Theory of Humour

Social Boundary Theory of Humour

Socially acceptable behaviour is contained within a set of unseen boundaries which are not formally taught. As young children, we learn by praise and punishment what behaviour is acceptable in the same way that we learn by the same means what places we can go, what items we can touch and what behaviours are acceptable.

However, it is a well known phenomenon that some areas are taboo from discussion. So, many parents find it difficult to talk to children about sex, or perhaps in this age, many children don’t want to hear parents talking about something they already know.
So where does this knowledge come from? As children seem to learn the socially acceptable boundaries even though they are not being formally taught or communicated.

I would like to propose a very simple hypothesis: that the main purpose of humour is to explore and demarc the boundaries of socially acceptable behaviour & thought. They are in effect ritualistic forays, toward and even beyond the bounds of acceptability, which are tolerated because these ritualised “attacks” enable society to discuss and communicate these taboo subjects.

Thus humour is in effect the formation of the question: “if someone did this – would it be acceptable”. Those “jokes” that do not push the bounds are not funny. Those jokes that go too far are deemed “unacceptable”. But in between there is a spectrum of acceptability and the response from the audience endorses and re-enforces or forms the social boundary. It is thus hypothesised that the the tone of the response from the audience, in some way communicates to everyone if or how far the boundary has been crossed. (i.e. laughter versus groans?)

In addition, by attacking other groups, humour is used to signpost the boundaries of the group: to create and maintain a group identity by denigrating “outsiders” and suggesting the insiders are superior, intellectually, socially and/or morally.

Many other theories of humour have been proposed as below. However none explain the purpose of humour or the reason why this form of behaviour would have evolved. However, it does fit in with these other theories as follows:

  1. Relief theory (suggests laughter is a release of tension),  the release of tension is not the main factor, but that the tension is a “social boundary” is key.
  2. Superiority Theory (that we laugh at misfortune of other) – here the humour is used to demarc the boundary to re-enforce the “them” and “us”
  3. Incongruity theory (states that humour is perceived when we perceive how things are not “as they ought to be”) – the “not as should be”, re-enforces the concept of what is “acceptable” (within the boundary) and what is not.
  4. Script based (describes written jokes – suggests there must be at least two possible semantic scripts, suggests must be “opposite”). I would suggest that “opposite” really means either side of the socially accepted boundary.
  5. Detection of mistaken reasoning – this shows that humour can stem from a “rational boundary”, so that some reasoning is socially acceptable and others are seen as “beyond the boundary”.
  6. Humour as a defence mechanism – is really seeking assurance from a group to identify a certain kind of behaviour as “unacceptable”.


  1. That because of the boundaries of social acceptability are dependent on culture, that in turn most aspects of humour will be culturally dependent.
  2. That in areas common to all societies, like sexual relationships, that those with the most lax attitude to sex will have the most obscene jokes and that those with the least tolerant views on sex, will still have jokes about the subject, but that they will find humour in scenarios that are at their cultural boundary of acceptability.
  3. That some forms of “joke” regarding other groups are a social foray, akin to the ritualistic foray of apes into neighbouring troops “territory”.
  4. That humour is also used to demarc the boundary of groups, and that even where no “enemy” tribe exists, the same general mechanisms are used are used to identify “enemy” groups such as bankers.
  5. Very young children who have very little understanding of “social acceptability” laugh. They cannot be trying to “teach” their parents about the limits of social acceptability. Therefore , this must be an instinctive reaction – based largely on when their conceptual understanding is not consistent – or beyond the bounds of  the conceptual model. Thus when parents play “Pee poh” (hiding their eyes), the child must be trying to rationalise the fact that the person has clearly not moved, but the “eyes” have “gone”. Thus laugher and the response by adults to a child’s laughter, may also be important in communicating ideas of reasoning.

This entry was posted in Climate. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Social Boundary Theory of Humour

  1. Scottish-Sceptic says:

    Have you heard the joke about the theory of humour: it wasn’t funny.

  2. Pingback: Social boundary theory of humour – predictions for psychiatry | Scottish Sceptic

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>