Social boundary theory of humour – predictions for psychiatry

The Social boundary theory of humour (outlined here) says that the reason humour is an evolutionary advantage, is because it is part of a mechanism by which we convey messages about social (and technological) boundaries. In essence, statements that are socially acceptable are not funny. Nor are statements that so overreach any social boundary that they become “gross”. But if we hit the social boundary on the mark … then we find these things most funny. And if you ever wondered where you got most of your sex education from … the theory postulates that it was from the dirty jokes you were told about sex. Likewise, many of your social attitudes and moral values, were likely delivered to you as humour – from which you worked out where the boundaries existed.

In other words, whilst you may think that sitting in an audience watching some “comedian” is “having fun”, what the theory suggests, that it is as dry as sitting in a lecture on moral ethics. Because you may as well be sitting in a seminar discussing whether some social taboo, whether it be breaking the rules of mathematics, cheating on someone or anal sex, is acceptable.

And that is why laughter is such an evolutionary advantage. Because when you live in big social groups, you have to have social boundaries … and if we learnt them like we learn foreign languages (which in Scotland is now OPTIONAL) then society would be a chaotic mess.

[Or to turn it around, humour may be an acceptable way to approach these taboo subjects which are difficult to discuss.]

Either way, there is a strong likelihood, that what you find funny will be determined by:

  1. What you think are appropriate social boundaries. So, for example, when the BBC have yet another lame feminist attacking men for being men, it just isn’t funny for us men. Yes there are some idiot men in the audience who pretend to laugh – but who are they kidding? They’re only doing it because they want to sleep with their feminist girlfriend. … A joke that feminists don’t like – which proves humour depends on your social attitudes.
  2. Whether you comprehend the “social boundaries”. This is subtly different from having different social values. Because for example, a group of quantum physicists may find one social boundary in giving particles human traits like “charmed”, which other people would also find funny if they had any ideas about the boundaries of acceptable thought in quantum mechanics.
  3. Whether you can work out the “riddles” on which structure humour is delivered. Even if you understand social boundaries and share the same social attitudes – many jokes are complex “riddles” and you have to work out the “riddle” to then know which social boundary is being “approached”. And we can all see this “working out” with Xmas cracker jokes … as there are always delayed chuckles as someone finally gets the joke (works out the riddle).

What this suggests, is that various psychiatric conditions may exhibit differences in how they perceive humour.

Is there any evidence that humour is affected by psychiatric conditions?

Here I came up against a huge problem, and that is that clearly most “conditions” seem to be a mixed & varied bag of symptoms held together only by a diagnosis. In other words, most conditions seem to consist of a variety of problems – and there seems to be no general agreement as to which symptoms are necessary or even whether they are integral to the condition or indeed it seems people have multiple issues all held together by a rather loosely applied label.

However I did find the following:


In a paper: sense of humor disorders in patients with schizophrenia and affective disorders, there is good evidence that those labelled as being Schizophrenic have a difference in perception of humour. However, from reading the paper and various forums discussing the paper, it was suggested that the issue was the Schizophrenics, have problems understanding the complexity of humour. In terms of the social boundary theory, that would mean that they are unable to work out which social boundary is being referred to rather than not understanding social boundaries.


In contrast to Schizophrenics, who have social values, I understood that psychopaths lacked empathy with the rest of society and did not share common social boundaries. So I predicted that they would not share the humour of others in society. I couldn’t easily find any papers on the subject, but the hypothesis, seemed to be confirmed to some extent when I read a very good article: Do Psychopaths Laugh?  This strongly supports the idea that psychopath’s lack of understanding of social values mean they cannot share the humour of the rest of society.

Or … perhaps it is because they fail to laugh, that they lack the mechanism to learn social boundaries? If so this provides a possible avenue to “cure” psychopaths, which is to find other ways to teach the boundaries of society and motivate them to learn.

However, then I read: Psychopathic sense of humour which more or less said the opposite. Indeed their response to humour was so different, I felt these two must have different personality traits. Indeed … I wondered whether it was someone trying to pretend to be a psychopath – but then I remembered that some people are labelled psychopaths who have an overwhelming desire to control others. And yet others seem to be able to turn on and off empathy. At this point, I realised that there must be many conditions that are all bagged together as psychopath. So with no way to be sure whether two people labelled as psychopath had the same condition, I wasn’t going to get much meaningful data.


Autism, or as it is often known “severe maleness” (just joking) is a condition where people just don’t find <snip> funny (just joking again – but see end). It’s a condition where people have an inability to understand others in some way. And like schizophrenics, there was talk on the internet of autistics being unable to understand much humour when it involved society, but that they did find humour in mathematics. I think it means autistics (like the rest of us) can find this type of joke funny:

Write the expression for the volume of a thick crust pizza with height “a” and radius “z”.

Explanation: The formula for volume is π·(radius)2·(height). In this case, pi·z·z·a.


A: “What is the integral of 1/cabin?”

B: “log cabin.”

A: “Nope, houseboat–you forgot the C.”

Explanation: the integral of 1/x is ln(x). Except it isn’t because there is an implied constant and the except integral is ln(x) + C. It then becomes workplay … C=Sea, and so houseboat is a possible answer (although obviously the houseboat answer is to demonstrate that if C=sea, then the social rules can be broken allowing many other answers of which houseboat is only an example).



Rather than “proving” the social boundary theory of humour, this quick foray into psychiatry has shown that whilst some the predictions of the social boundary theory sometimes work – it is also clear that annoyingly they don’t. But it is also clear that psychiatric conditions do not have the necessary tight diagnosis. So contrary results may be a failure to have tightly defined diagnosis rather than a failure of the social boundary theory.


It would be fairly safe to conclude that whilst psychiatry is obviously a very complex issue, there is some supportive evidence for the theory from the way different conditions react to humour. But it is also very clear, that a failure to find something funny may be the result of many factors: a difference in social attitudes, a lack of comprehension of the joke “riddle” or it’s subject (e.g. maths), or a lack of understanding/comprehension/learning of “boundaries”.

It therefore seems likely that humour could play a role in:

  1. diagnosing conditions – or at least differentiating between subgroups within the present loose definitions.
  2. In treating some conditions, if as the theory predicts, humour is one of the main ways of learning social boundaries. In that a failure to understand humour – may not mean those people are incapable of understanding or adhering to social boundaries – it’s just they aren’t getting taught them through humour.

And to finish

with a a joke that will go over the head of most scientific illiterates:

What is an ironic man?

A female.

Addendum – drugs and humour

Another prediction is that certain drugs that affect our perception of acceptable social boundaries, will have an affect on our perception of humour. This leads to the Nobel prize winner prediction … that people who drink alcohol, which changes our perception of what is socially acceptable behaviour, will have a different perception of what is humorous. OK stating what is blindingly obvious is never going to win a Nobel prize, however, just because it is so obvious, the strong correlation between alcohol and a dramatic change in both acceptable behaviour and what we find funny may be the strongest evidence so far that the social boundary theory is correct.

And … it might explain why people who have had alcohol might find each other hilariously funny … but can be not at all funny to the sober. That would be because the drunk people have all had a similar movement in their social boundaries, so if they shared social boundaries before, they will when drunk, but that will not be the same social boundary as their “humour compatriots” who are still sober.

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9 Responses to Social boundary theory of humour – predictions for psychiatry

  1. TinyCO2 says:

    Humour is certainly complex and there is no universal funny. Personally I don’t like humour that intends to hurt the victim of it. I’m dismayed that we’ve gone from mocking large groups of people (racist) to ripping individuals to pieces. Most political humour is vile. For me the best humour comes from affection. I loved Julian and Sandy, long before I knew what homosexuality was and loathed Alf Garnet before I understood that different colours were a point of discrimination. One felt it came from liking, the other from hate (and I don’t mean the character Alf but the whole concept of the show). I like commedians who gently tease their families and themselves. Mike Harding was a fine commedian while he talked about his youth but became bitter and political and just wasn’t funny any more. The reason feminist humour largely isn’t funny is because it’s adversarial. It’s the female equivalent of sexist jokes. Some sexist jokes are genuinely funny but a lot are saturated in disliking for women. The best jokes about race are told by those belonging to those races. As a child I couldn’t understand why people laughed at Laurel and Hardy. All I saw was the fat guy bullying the thin guy and the script bullying him. In Blackadder 2-4, you could have said it was the same formula but Blackadder seemed to care for those he bullied.

    But that’s MY preferred comedy. Other people view the same things and like or dislike them for their own reasons. Is one side or the other abnormal? It’s very normal to pick on others. Physical comedy often relies on the audiences enjoyment of people getting hurt, albeit in a cartoon way.

    PS your joke is funner and a lot more subtle than the one that won the Fringe award for best joke. Easier to pick up on written down though.

    • Scottish-Sceptic says:

      The original reason why I started trying to work out what made humour was because I needed a way to test whether a thousands of year old passage of text was intended to be humorous.

      The problem was that I had no idea what this society would or would not find humorous in the ancient text and it was not presented in any formulaic format (aka joke) that I recognised. Indeed, the only indication of it being humorous was that it contained a clear contradiction when translated without humour.

      Most (all?) current theories focused on the way we currently present jokes … something that is clearly not universal to humour because we can for example watch people slipping over and find that funny. So, any theory based on how a joke or humour was constructed failed with inadvertent humour. But because humour was so human … it seemed that it must be social in some way … but as you demonstrate, the idea of what is funny varies dramatically between people – but more between society.

      But it’s also true that whilst being a “social construct” – and therefore ever changing as society changes, humour (or laughing) is also a raw instinctual response that is present in apes and even I understand in rats. It therefore follows, that whatever humour is … it MUST have a powerful evolutionary advantage to be so ingrained in so many species (even if it may not mean the same thing – the response is present). Thus we have the requirements:
      1. Humour must be instinctual
      2. It must provide massive evolutionary advantage across several species
      3. It is a social construct
      4. It’s not understood by academics (OK I put that in as a joke – but jokes may contain more truth than appears – at least according to this theory).

      This is what led me to the idea that humour is in some way communicating important social information … and the obvious thing is in the phrase “on the edge” for much humour. In other words, humour is possibility the single most important ingredient for holding a society together (or breaking it apart as the BBC are so effective at doing).

      • TinyCO2 says:

        “that humour is in some way communicating important social information”

        A lot of it is. So racists/sexist/feminist comedy is to make those of the same race/sex/etc bond. A them and us thing. Prat falls are to encourage us to not be clumsy. Remoaner comedy is to try and persuade us that Brexit was wrong. Humour depends upon which side of the joke you’re on. It’s a subtler tool than calling someone a climate change denier.

        It is communication but it’s also a threat. Conform or we’ll mock you and exclude you socially.

        • Scottish-Sceptic says:

          The most interesting humour I spotted recently was in a paper: “Kelly, A. 2012 The Cretan Slinger at War: a weighty exchange. Annual of the British School of Athens, 273-311.” and I quote:

          “kye, κύε, a single word meaning ‘impregnate yourself on this’ (awkwardly avoiding the obvious vernacular)” [Found on a sling shot]

          The reason I find this so funny – is that I’ve spent weeks trying to find evidence of sexual insults – and this explains my problem perfectly. Because whereas the English for kye is “Fuck you” (two words, 7 letters), the academicene is “impregnate yourself on this” (4 words, 24 letters). So the same information is conveyed in Greek in 3 letters, in plain English in 7 and in Academicene in 24, an eight fold increase.

          It also explains why it is so damned difficult to find this kind of material – because who would ever think to search for “impregnate yourself” instead of the simple and BY THEIR OWN ADMISSION more readily understood English.

          It also works at another level, because we have been taught for many years that only the intellectual elite of any age could read & write. The reason is obvious: because academics write history, and they project onto the past their views of modern society. So their portrayal of the past is a good indication of how they view the present: there is an “intellectual elite”, and everyone else is inferior and ignorant.

          Well it wasn’t any academic writing or reading κύε, it wasn’t any academic who discovered how to smelt lead, no academic built the Roman empire, in fact most history had nothing to do with academics, so κύε to them.

  2. TinyCO2 says:

    I imagine many of the first jokes were to do with sex. Both to promote desired behaviour and supress the undesirable. Ancient Greece probably had a lot of pro homosexual humour. Of course the earliest gags might be pictoral rather than written. Willies were everwhere, lamps, lucky charms, paintings and I bet a fair amount of laughter went along.

    • Scottish-Sceptic says:

      The rat “tickling” example is interesting. It suggests that laughter may have started in some kind of mutual touching which could be sexual, but is much more likely to have been some kind of mechanism in mock fights. It’s meaning would be something like “I know you are pretending to kill me, but I’m OK with it”. But it might also have a sexual element as in “I know you are trying to touch me in a way that I could find unacceptable … but I don’t (yet) take it as a threat”.

      The next step up, is when you empathise with others … so that you laugh not at a mock attack on yourself, but on other people. In other words, we laugh when someone is pretending to hit another (aka slapstick). This is a large part of what we’d normally call “play” something which is fairly common in many mammals. And play is often used as a way of practising fighting in animals.

      The next step would be when laughter was used for mock speech attacks … obviously only possible after the development of speech. But as the exchange of verbal insults is a common precursor to battles, I’m led to consider that the speeches might have a similar purpose as the peacock’s feathers. In other words, two hominids would “speak” at each other to assess their fitness before engaging in battle. Intellect might sound an odd proxy for “fitness” to fight, but as a large brain is both needed for two legged movement and hand-eye co-ordination as well as for speaking, so being a capable speaker may be a very good way of telling those who had had the nourishment to create a big brain that is both good at speaking and good at co-ordinating body movements needed in fights. And it may not have been brute strength that won fights between hominids – but perhaps throwing accuracy.

      In other words, just as males of many species as youngsters, practice physical sparring with their siblings, so a similar process could have been present with early humans. It may mean that these play “verbal sparring” started with something no more complex than a tuneful howl … but (because a large brain is not that expensive) might have rapidly led to the evolution of language – not because speaking was any use – but because complex vocalisation might have been a very good proxy signal of “fitness”.

      However, alongside this, humour may have further developed, not as a mock fight, but as a means to convey social information … in other words, to educate others on the acceptable social boundaries of the society. This would have had a very strong bonding effect (reinforced by the endorphins? produced by laughter). Thus laughter from originally being important in proving a man’s fitness … may have quickly been adapted (often by women) to enforce social norms and allow much more complex social structures to develop … and perhaps be a way for women to instruct men in a non-confrontational way. And of course, speaking itself would have been a tool for social advancement within a group … and likewise using “mock verbal fights” as a way of gratifying others and a form of grooming of others.

      To put it simply, a bit of slap stick comedy like pretend falling over … may have got the ladies (or gents) laughing and enabled the individual to increase their social standing and fitness for mating. And likewise, speech.

      This would allow the same instinctual “that’s on the boundary of what I’d accept” laughter response, to have been adapted from the very simple “tickly/play-fight laughter response” of a rat through the “slap-stick” comedy appreciated by apes, to the more socially complex and diverse comedy we have today.

  3. TinyCO2 says:

    I’m assuming that you’ve already looked at the greek plays? And or the myths of ancient cultures because they include ‘humour’ or tricks played on others. But as with Shakespear etc, the jokes often don’t work today.

    I recently saw a moderised version of The Alchemist by Ben jonson. It was well done but the the fundamental joke didn’t work. It either needed the plot and dialogue modernised too or have the whole thing done in the era it was written.

    Old plays often raise a giggle when ‘gay’ is used in its old meaning but a modern audience.

    • Scottish-Sceptic says:

      I read something like 250 Roman jokes. Perhaps a quarter were obviously funny (to me), perhaps another quarter were funny when I worked what the joke was (might be). Another quarter were not funny when I worked out the joke (I think I remember something about killing a ethnic slave for some reason), and the last quarter … I had no idea what so ever.

      It’s interesting you raise the issue of homosexuality – because it seems that most of the ancient world didn’t recognise it as such. Instead a man could be involved in two ways – one as a penetrator and the other as being penetrated. This seems to imply it was considered perfectly manly to penetrate any social inferior – what was deemed socially taboo, was allowing yourself as a man to be penetrated. So, a lot of Roman and Greek humour focusses on this important distinction – and for obvious reasons it is now lost on most people now.

  4. Pingback: Evolutionary Theory of humour | Scottish Sceptic

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