Social Humor 

We watch comedy to have fun, to escape our unwanted thoughts and emotions. Afterwards, we may find that a good mood lingers and our worries are held at bay. When this happens we have experienced what is commonly referred to as “comic relief.” Supporting anecdotal experiences such as these is an extensive, yet theoretically disparate, literature supporting the contention that humor and its concomitant behaviors, laughter and smiling, buffer us to and help us regulate negative emotional states. What is particularly surprising about humor, but far less studied, are the actual topics comedians target in an effort to produce this effect. Negative content is abundant in comedy: Job frustrations, traffic jams, annoying family members, sexual dysfunction, broken relationships, vomit, feces, etc., proliferate in comedy. Aristotle was the first to draw attention to the apparent marriage between negative topics and humor. Plato, Spencer, Darwin, and Freud have followed. Professional humorists themselves admittedly exploit negative life experience as a natural resource for humor: “I merchandise misery,” once remarked Woody Allen.
Yet, almost all the research on humor as a regulator of emotion has focused on the effects of laughter and smiling, and unrelated humor prior to, concurrent with, and subsequent to negative emotion. Yet, we have found that one's own negative life events and their attempts to suppress related thoughts actually enhances related humor responses. In this way, we are putting the "social" back into humor.

Related Publications

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*PDFs of articles are posted below (PDF) for individual, noncommercial use to ensure timely dissemination of scholarly work. They are intended for teaching and training purposes only. Articles may not be reposted or disseminated without permission by the copyright holder. Copyright holders retain all rights as indicated within each article.

Franklin, R. G., Jr., Adams, R. B., Jr. (2011). The reward of a good joke: Neural correlates underlying dynamic displays of stand-up comedy. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience11, 508-515. (PDF)

Hurley, M.M., Dennett, D.C., & Adams, R.B., Jr. (2011). Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Moran, J.M., Wig, G.S., Adams, R.B., Jr., Janata, P., & Kelley, W.M. (2004).  The neural funny bone: Dissociating humor comprehension from Mirth. NeuroImage, 21, 1055-1060(PDF)