Popular Science Monthly/Volume 53/July 1898/The Psychological Cause of Laughter


WE laugh under the most diverse circumstances. Curious incidents of the most various character, some absurdly trifling and others rising into different degrees of importance, will provoke the feeling that prompts laughter, or the emotion of the ludicrous; for it is this with which we have to do, rather than with the audible explosion. Our inquiry is into the interior cause, into the moral element in the incident that provokes the feeling, and into what takes place in the nervous centers. The study of this is important, and has been well prosecuted by recent authors of the day, but the purely psychological element should not be neglected.

At the beginning of our inquiry we meet the common opinion that the feeling of laughter is caused by joy. This has the merit of simplicity; but joy does not always make us laugh, for there are serious joys; and we frequently laugh without being joyful, and even sometimes at things that are sad.

Another opinion, to which Darwin inclines, is that laughter is provoked by what is queer, unusual, by what disagrees with or is contrary to our mental habits, or interrupts the familiar course. The queer, the old-fashioned, the provincial, partake, we admit, of the ludicrous. Caricatures amuse because of their exaggerations of proportions in contradiction to all natural laws. We recognize that there is something queer in everything that excites laughter, and that no word, act, situation, or attitude can be really laughable without having something strange about it.

Yet the queer does not always make us laugh. There are things contrary to the normal order that have nothing ludicrous about them; and if the view were true that queerness is the laughable element, those things that are strangest and most unusual should be the very ones most certain by their very nature to excite laughter. But we do not laugh at the dancing horses, the jumping pigs, the musicians playing on bottles, of the circus, all of which are most contradictory of what we are accustomed to. If we laugh at the circus, it is at the accessory jokes and incidents in the detail.

A conjuror's tricks, seemingly contradictory as they are of all our experiences and notions, do not make us laugh. We laugh at his jokes and his funny ways of proceeding, but wonder at the tricks.

In a theory proposed by M. Penjou in the Revue philosophique, laughter is excited by whatever appears as free and exempt from law, and as produced by a playful activity or the capricious manifestation of an unrestrained will, as in jokes, plays on words, equivocations, a schoolboy's pranks, deformities, or freaks of Nature. "The same cause of laughter," he says, "will be found in all the cases I can cite. . . . They always involve, under a thousand shadings, the sudden manifestation of a freedom that destroys our prepossessions, but without harm to us or real injury to others. However we may regard it, it is always this abrupt spontaneous outburst, with the entire absence of ostensible cause, that makes us laugh. . . . Spontaneity or liberty makes us laugh, and is, in fact, the essence of the amusing and the ludicrous in all their forms; and laughter is simply the expression of a liberty we feel, or of our own sympathy with the real or fancied manifestation of another's liberty, and is the natural echo in us of liberty." This hypothesis, with a few minor variations, is simply the theory of the odd.

We are ready to acknowledge that there is considerable truth in this view. Liberties are taken with words in a pun and with {Esthetics in a grimace. Such freedoms are, however, often exhibited to us without our feeling any inclination to laugh. For an extravagance or a caprice some trait which has not yet been determined must be present.

Another considerably prevalent theory supposes the abrupt perception of a contrast between the attempt and the outcome, the appearance and the reality, the mask and the face, the tone and the words, the form and the substance, that provokes laughter. "Laughing," says Hegel in his Æsthetics, "is a sign that we are wise enough to comprehend the contrast and take note of it." According to L. Dumont, it is occasioned by the conflict in our mind of two contradictory thoughts, causing a shock. "The recognition of an object," he says, "at first gives a certain impulse to our understanding and stimulates its activity in a certain direction, when immediately a contradictory impression of another quality of the same object comes in and forces it into a contrary direction." Still the same common theory of contrast, except that with Dumont the contrast rises to a contradiction.

Many contrasts are unquestionably ludicrous. In a parody, the comic effect is produced by the contrast of the gravity of the original work and the irreverence of the travesty. In the child's innocent expression that we laugh at, there is a contrast between the bearing of the word and the candor of the one who speaks it. Certain kinds of transpositions make us laugh for a similar reason: a tragedy rendered into a trivial style, sublime sentiments expressed in slang.

There are other contrasts in which there is nothing ludicrous. The false note of a singer is in most cases only painful; but the effect of it is a contrast. The sight of a deformed body, after looking at sound and well-proprtioned bodies, does not amuse. We do not laugh when black is set upon white. We laugh when a clown, pretending to imitate a cavalier, makes an awkward tumble, but not if a real horseman gayly trotting by meets with disaster; yet there is equally a contrast in both cases. A saying, amusing in itself, does not please when pronounced under solemn circumstances that contrast with its tenor; and nothing is so insupportable as a companion who insists on being funny when one is absorbed in admiration of something or with grief. Everything that is out of tune creates a contrast, but does not make one laugh.

Bain suggests the explanation that laughter is provoked by what he calls a degradation, meaning that we laugh when we all at once perceive something degrading, a trickery, a weakness, or a pettiness in some person or object which we respect; as when the infirmities of human nature disclose themselves in a person of importance, or when some trivial affair occurs in a solemn ceremony to drag us down, or when the wrong side of some great thing or some great man is exposed. "The occasion of the laughter is the degradation of a dignified person or interest, under circumstances that do not excite a stronger emotion. In all theories of laughter the more or less important fact is marked. . . that the feeling of the ludicrous arises when something which we respected before is presented in a mean light; for we have no disposition to laugh when something that we already regarded as such is depicted as tricky and vile."

It can not be denied that this solution agrees with many facts. We frequently, perhaps most frequently, laugh at degradation. Those words are often amusing which bring up all at once the eccentricity or the vice of some person. Degradation is even the essence of parody. We laugh at the lapse of an orator, because the man, with his weaknesses, is suddenly exposed in the midst of his sublime flight. An uncouth expression or sound uttered in an asssemblage of grave men makes us laugh for the same reason, because humanity is detected under its mask of gravity. Monkeys make us laugh because they by their grimaces and attitudes degrade the men they imitate to their own level. In general, fatuity, pretension, and affectation are ludicrous because vulgarity is betrayed under the mask at every instant.

Yet this is not the real cause, for we often witness the spectacle of a degradation without having any disposition to laugh at it. When we perceive a pettiness in a person for whom we have reverence, we are only sorry. We do not always laugh when the eccentricity of another is exposed. Our laughing depends much on the way the exposure is made. Thus, not the odd or the exhibition of freedom or contrast or degradation is the real cause of laughter. There are queer spectacles that are not amusing, free actions that are austere, contrasts that are sad, and degradations that are solemn. The one thing that is always present, that provokes laughter, to suppress which is to suppress laughter, a variation of which has an immediate effect on the intensity of the emotion of the ludicrous, is still to be found.

Let us study a few cases; first, of what we find to amuse us in acts, and then in words. We find the application of great effort to move a load that proves to be a trifle, ludicrous; as when a man exerts all his strength to force open a door that yields at a touch, or when the clown on the stage brings all his strength to bear to lift the mock cannon ball which we know is only pasteboard. Our first impression of such actions is that they are strange or absurd. Such Herculean efforts to raise a load we know to be trifling, to overcome a resistance which we know is as nothing, are, on the first impression, incomprehensible. A second impression, however, comes on, which the psychologists seem to have missed, and which may go far to account for the ludicrous aspect of the proceeding. A rapid process of thought within us makes the act which at first seems absurd appear natural from the point of view of the actor. We think that the man supposed the door was solidly fastened, and the clown that he had a real cannon ball to lift. The effort they made was therefore natural; we should have strained ourselves too if we had been in their place, and all for nothing; and we laugh at that. What seemed queer was simply natural, an unusual fact was a habitual one, and what we thought was surprising was after all familiar. We experience a sudden revulsion of feeling, and are amused.

So in words and expressions which we regard as witty or funny. They are first presented to us in a sense and with associations which seem queer or remote; then we find that they have also a natural and even simple interpretation. Our natural surprise at the discovery is expressed in laughter.

In the scenes which comedians present upon the stage, these double interpretations and instantaneous transitions of feeling are artfully provided for, and the success of the comedy is proportioned to the skill and plausibility with which they are worked up. "When the play turns upon complicated situations and the mistakes and blunders of the character, we first perceive the absurdity of the whole as seen from our position; then instantly recognize that with the actors the matter is a serious one, and that what they are doing is correct from their point of view. The point of the joke lies in this double perception.

Some persons are slow in perceiving this point, and come in with their laughter after all the others are done. Their minds work more sluggishly, and they require more time to discover the duplex element.

Many conjurors' and circus tricks seem absurd and interest us without exciting laughter, because only the unaccustomed side of them is presented to us, and we fail to perceive wherein they have a natural side; and we are more puzzled than amused by them.

Laughter is favored by various circumstances and conditions—as a good state of physical being, infancy and youth, exultation over success, the buoyance we feel after having escaped danger, and cheerful moods. Some writers have sought the causes of laughter among these conditions; but we think they are only incidents, and simply help it by promoting freedom and agility of the mind. Children, who have no fixed habits and are vastly more susceptible to impressions than their elders, perceive the different sides of objects and their contrasts more speedily than they, and are more prone to laughter.

Mental dullness, physical trouble, disappointment, mistakes, anxiety, or mental pain are restraints upon laughter, or prevent it. Thus the more a thing appears to us at once unusual on one side and familiar on the other, the greater is the tendency to laughter; and the less pronounced the contrast the less we are amused at it.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from the Revue des Deux Mondes.


Sir Andrew Ramsay appears to be the first person who solved the mystery of the authorship of the Vestiges of Creation. He wrote in his diary, on the 14th of February, 1846: "At home at night reading the fifth edition of the Vestiges. Saw in it things I had told Chambers in Edinburgh after the publication of the fourth edition. He is the author."