What is humor? An attempt at definition.

It seems natural to start this blog off with an attempt to define the very subject of the psychology of humor – all that mirth, teasing, warm feelings, banter and puns that comprise a complex social and psychological phenomenon, we call humor.

Psychology in general has been interested to greater or a lesser degree (rather lesser) in humor for over 100 years now (beginning with Freud’s Jokes and their relation to the unconscious in 1905) and the last twenty to thirty years shown a real outbreak of numerous humor research and theories. However, the scientific study of humor has never made it to the mainstream, which could perhaps help its consolidation and the quantity of different approaches and ways scholars operationalize humor makes it difficult if not impossible to present a one, universal definition.

And no wonder. Even the “normal” people (i.e. not psychologists but the average internet users) mean so many different things when they think about humor. Below Google autocomplete examples (illustrating what phrases related to humor are searched the most for):


The second example is surprisingly adequate in terms of psychology, although extremely manifold in terms of its subfields: “Humor is an emotion” (psychology of emotion), “a sign of intelligence” (cognitive psychology, psychology of individual differences) and “a defense mechanism” (psychoanalysis).

Rod A. Martin was faced this complexity when writing his extensive and integrative book about the psychology of humor. Here’s an elegant definition he came up with:


“From a psychological perspective, the humor process can be divided into four essential components: (1) a social context, (2) a cognitive-perceptual process, (3) an emotional response, and (4) the vocal-behavioral expression of laughter.”

(Martin, 2007, p. 5)

Personally, I prefer to use the word “phenomenon” or “construct”, instead of “process”, because many people associate the word “process” with a sequence, and the abovementioned elements with “stages”. While, when experiencing humor, all four tend to happen at once.

I also often add two other elements to the definition: (5) cultural phenomenon and (6) individual style or preference.

Although culture is undoubtedly very closely related to the social context of humor, it is worthwhile to separate it from social psychology, i.e. study of how people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are influenced by others (Allport, 1985). The interest for humor seen as cross-cultural phenomenon is growing (Ruch & Forabosco, 1996; Cheng, 2003; Bell, 2007; Bell & Attardo, 2010; etc.) and the studies within this field often have different approach than those related to social psychology (with focus on language, history and cross-cultural interaction).

Humor seen as an individual style or preference, on the other hand, reflects one of the common-sense conceptions of humor, i.e. as in the “sense of humor”. There is a considerate body of literature discussing individual differences in how people use humor in social interactions (e.g. Martin et al., 2003) and what kind of humorous content they prefer (Ruch, 1988).

Below is an illustration of the definition of humor in relation to different subfields of psychology:

  • This definition can be extremely useful when navigating through the field psychology of humor (try typing just “psychology +humor” in your EBSCO or JSTOR search fields);
  • It is also helpful in explaining humor as a psychological construct or phenomenon (as I often do during my workshops).
  • If you’re writing your first paper or master thesis about humor, don’t forget to define humor (because your thesis supervisor/reviewer won’t) and feel free to use this post to guide you



Allport, G. W. (1985). The historical background of social psychology. In G. Lindzey, & E. Aronson, The Handbook of Social Psychology (p. 5). New York: McGraw Hill.

Bell, N. (2007). Humor comprehension: Lessons learned from cross-cultural communication. Humor, 20(4), 367-387.

Bell, N., & Attardo, S. (2010). Failed humor: Issues in non-native speakers’ appreciation and understanding of humor. Intercultural Pragmatics, 7(3), 423-447.

Freud, S. (1960). Jokes and their relation to the unconscious. New York: W. W. Norton.

Martin, A. R., Puhlik-Doris, P., Larsen, G., Gray, J., & Weir, K. (2003). Individual differences in uses of humor and their relation to psychological well-being: Development of the Humor Styles Questionnaire. Journal of Research in Personality(37), 48-75.

Martin, R. A. (2007). The psychology of humor: an integrative approach. Burlington: Elsevier Academic Press.

Ruch, W. (1988). Sensation seeking and the enjoyment of structure and content of humour: Stability of findings across four samples. Personality & Individual Differences, 9(5), 861-871.

Ruch, W., & Forabosco, G. (1996). A cross-cultural study of humor appreciation: Italy and Germany. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, 9(1), 1–18.


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