The Psychology of Humor: Why Jokes Matter

Today we have a guest post from Jackie Summers.

I was 12 years old. My bully had me cornered at the bus stop after school. Six kids surrounded me, and my bully had me shoved up against the wall, his fists in my windbreaker.

I knew the routine. He was going to try to rob me. With him in my face, his friends watching, and my feet dangling off the ground, I said “my wallet is in my back pocket but i have Tic Tacs in my jacket, and you had onions for lunch.”

His friends burst into laughter. I took a chance and made fun of someone more powerful than me, at the risk of my health, and that day it kept me from getting my ass kicked.

Now flip it. If he’d beaten me up, taken my wallet, and then made fun of my breath, would the joke have been funny, or just cruel?

As a kid I was bullied a lot. I learned to make jokes as a defense mechanism for stressful situations from reading comic books. Nothing infuriated villains more than Spider-Man cracking a joke while he fought. It masked his own fears while giving his opponents the impression he didn’t take them seriously. Spidey took down a lot of foes more powerful than he, because he could think fast and distract them.
According to Dr. Hoorie I Siddique PH.D. of Embolden Psychology, the science of making jokes/laughing under duress has a specific neurological profile:

  1. When you laugh at someone or something, it causes disinhibition.
  2. The frontal cortex is the stop sign of the brain. Lack of inhibition or filter is a common symptom with frontal lobe dysfunction.
  3. This disinhibition makes it easier to laugh while short circuiting higher order thinking.
  4. If you can laugh at someone vulnerable, it follows that you would be hard-pressed to go into problem-solving mode if they need help.
  5. Literally sets up a pattern of not being able to see the person as a vulnerable being.

You can see where all this is leading. Every time I got beat up, being laughed at either while it was happening (or after it was done) was just salt in literal wounds. It’s sociopathic to laugh at someone while they’re hurting, especially if you are the one who caused their pain.

Alternatively, the ability to make jokes under duress at the expense of my oppressors took quick thinking, courage, and a clear enough mind to think critically.

Says Dr. SIddique:
“Humor perception, not surprisingly lights up the pleasure centers of the brain. Like sex, or delicious food, laughing at something we find funny makes us feel good and creates a rush of endorphins.”
“Humor production is more complicated, and shows the most activity in the temporal lobe. This is the auditory processing area, that takes in verbal information from the environment, and puts it into words and phrases.”

In short: making fun of people more powerful than you humanizes them. This is why we cheer when our heroes quip in the face of danger, and cringe when antagonists add insult to injury.
Making fun of people less powerful than you dehumanizes them. It’s how the mobs of Rome were able to cheer gleefully for gruesome deaths in the coliseum, or how ordinary folx took delight in lynchings in the Jim Crow South.

Imagine instead of six bullies trying to rob an underclassman, you have the ear of millions. Imagine using great intelligence to poke fun at a powerful but woefully incompetent politician. You’ve humanized them; they’re less scary. Millions of people are now managing their fear, less afraid to resist oppression, their own or that of others.

Use that same intelligence to make fun of someone who’s marginalized and you’ve dehumanized them. You’ve just made it easier for their oppressors to justify their actions, you’ve given license to millions of people to laugh at their plight, and possibly short circuited their ability (or desire) to aid their cause.

Please think about this as you consider what entertains you.

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