A brief introduction to the benign violation theory of humor – guest post by Dr Peter McGraw

In this short post,  Dr Peter McGraw introduces his universal  theory of humor called the benign violation theory. The theory draws to a certain degree on the notion of  incongruity, present in other cognitive theories of humor appreciation. The post was originally published on the Humor Research Lab (HuRL) blog by Dr McGraw in September 2010. Both the theory and its author has gone on a long journey since – both academically and literally: Dr McGraw, together with  a journalist Joel Whttp://web.archive.org/web/20141019075150/http://leeds-faculty.colorado.edu/mcgrawp/BlogPosts.htmlarner, went on a “far-reaching search for the secret behind humor”, which resulted in a book published recently  under a somewhat enigmatic title:  The Humor Code. Find more about and order the book on humorcode.com. Dr Peter McGraw and Joel Warner agreed to do an interview for psycholofyofhumor.com, so stay tuned for more details about they journey and humor-discoveries they made in different parts of the world…
– Piotr Pluta


A brief introduction to the benign violation theory of humor, by Dr Peter McGraw

Below I introduce the benign violation theory and discuss a paper, Benign violations: Making immoral behavior funny, that Caleb Warren and I recently published in the August 2010 volume of Psychological Science.

The benign violation theory builds on work by Tom Veatch and integrates existing humor theories to propose that humor occurs when and only when three conditions are satisfied: (1) a situation is violation, (2) the situation is benign, and (3) both perceptions occur simultaneously. A violation occurs when a situation threatens the way that you believe the world “ought” to be. Simply put, something seems wrong. Violations take many forms, ranging from tickling and playfighting to the violations of linguistical norms, conventions, and rules that take place in puns.

Benign Violation Theory - Peter McGraw


There are also many ways to make a violation benign. In the paper, we tested three: 1) A violation can seem benign because of a lack of commitment to the violated norm, such as when people who are not religious laugh when a church gives away a Hummer SUV; 2) A violation can seem benign because of distance from the violation, such as when it occurs to someone else, happened long ago, or doesn’t seem real; and 3) A violation can seem benign because of an alternative interpretation, as occurs in the case of playfighting and tickling. The benign violation theory suggests that primates often laugh when play fighting and tickling because both are mock attacks — laughter signals a threatening situation is okay.


McGraw, A.P. & Warren, C. (2010). Benign violations: Making immoral behavior funny. Psychological Science21, 1141-1149. LINK

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