Theories of Humor

Incongruity Theory

This theory basically deals with expectations. When somebody is telling you something (a story of some sort), we often already anticipate what's going to happen and how the story will end. This anticipation is mostly based on our past experiences and our logical thought processes. But when the story takes an unexpected turn, we experience two sets of conflicting thoughts and emotions at the same time. This incongruity between different parts of the joke is humorous. 

Superiority Theory

This theory comes into play when we laugh at someone else's mistakes, stupidity, or misfortunes. We feel superior to this person, coming across a certain detachment from the situation as if it will never happen to us. As a result of feeling both superior and invulnerable, we are able to laugh at that person's foolishness.

Relief Theory (Comic Relief)

After building tension in a story, you can add a moment of "lightness" to calm the mood.  The feeling of relief we get from this moment can cause laughter. In action films or thrillers where tension is high, the director uses comic relief at just the right times. He builds up the tension or suspense as much as possible and then breaks it down slightly with a side comment, allowing the viewer to relieve himself of pent-up emotion, just so the movie can build it up again.

The Changes in Sense of Humor Over Time

Different age groups find different, specific topics humorous. For example, teenagers may find sexual humor easier to relate to.  Changes in your taste in humor is a result of changes in priorities and experiences at different ages.
  • Toddlers: Everything is new, simplest things can seem ridiculous and cause a toddler to laugh. EX: "toilet humor" (poop)
  • Adolescents: Greatest concern is ones personal identity/ how he appears in the eyes of his peers.  At this age, you are laughing at others to help you with your own self-esteem, or you are laughing to fit in with the rest, even if you don't actually find it funny
  • Adults: Your sense of humor is supposed to mature.  Adult humor just relies on whether or not you "get the joke" by analyzing the joke's intention correctly OR....
                    - accumulated stress
                    - laughter is taken for granted
                        - stuck in role-play; towards adulthood, we take on the roles expected of us from our parents. When you were younger, you might have heard your parents say to you to "be more serious!"  or "you're grown up, so act like it!"  At work, it's all hard work and no play; day after day, adults become more serious as a result of being consumed in their jobs and workload. This may even occur with teenagers who take on too many advanced classes and become swamped with work; they may begin to lose their sense of humor.

Why Do We Laugh?

People think we laugh when we think something is funny, but most laughter isn't even response to jokes or humor at all. Often people laugh at comments such as, "I'll see you guys later," or "It was nice meeting you," rather than comments relating to jokes.  In humans, laughter originated millions of years before speech.  Laughter was the simplest method of communication before we could talk to each other.  The primary function may not be to express oneself, but instead to rouse positive feelings while others are around.  This was important for small groups of early humans because it eased tension and nurtured a sense of group unity.   

The Science of Laughter

The "ha ha" noise of human laughter originates from the panting sounds/laughter of our primate ancestors.  Some researchers have found laugh-like behavior in other animals, even rats- unlike humans, these animals don't have an actual sense of humor.  Animal "laughter" is caused by tickling, rough-housing, or chasing games- Apes laugh at some of the same things babies do: they will squeal or laugh when you chase them around or tickle them.
We somehow laugh at the right times without consciously knowing we do it.  Laughter is extremely difficult to control consciously- we cannot deliberately activate the brain's mechanisms for affective expression, such as laughter.  If you tell a friend to laugh, it'll take him a while before he can produce a laugh, most likely it's forced/unnatural.  Laughter is an instinctive behavior programmed by our genes, not a learned group reaction.  There is actually little research on why or how we laugh.  People are much more likely to talk or smile to themselves than to laugh when they are alone - proves however happy we may feel, laughter is a signal we send out to others and it pretty much disappears when we lack an audience.  Women tend to laugh more than men, but males are the ones who provoke humor and laughter - the class clown is usually a boy.
 (Women like men who are funny and men like women who laugh at their jokes- survival instinct.)