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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- diagnosing conditions – or at least differentiating between subgroups within the present loose definitions.
- 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?
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.