Fundamentals of Social Psychology

Chapter 7: Mirthful Nature

Emory S. Bogardus

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SOCIAL nature is mirthful, due to the fact that behavior is not always appropriate ; does not always fit the given circumstances. Mirth manifests itself continually in the daily life of all normal persons ; it appears to be essential to normal personality; it is an element in physical and mental health ; it is common to social group life; it is a social corrective ; it is a socializing force. Naturally, then, many of the world's leading thinkers, from Aristotle to Bergson, have pondered over its nature.


According to Aristotle, comedy is an imitation of the characteristics of a lower type than represented by the imitator. The laughable is something degrading in the object or person at which one laughs—this is known as the theory of degradation. Aristotle does not explain, however, why the lower or degrading factors in life stimulate mirthfulness, and underestimates the importance of other elements.

Hobbes developed the theory of superiority, which is partly correlative to Aristotle's explanation. According to Hobbes, laughter is the result of an expansion of feeling which is brought on by the realization of one's superiority over the person, or thing, or situation at which he laughs. But a realization of superiority does not always lead to mirthfulness; there are evidently important factors which this theory does not disclose. In principle, Addison's theory is similar to that of Hobbes, namely, that pride is the chief cause of laughter.

Kant explained mirthfulness on the basis of nullification of expectation, that is, laughter arises from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing. This interpretation implies the welling up of neural energy toward a certain goal which is suddenly removed, thus putting the individual in an unusual predicament; it is a subjective explanation which does not indicate why it is that sometimes the sudden transformation of a strained expectation produces laughter and sometimes sorrow or anger.

The theory of incongruity was advanced by Schopenhauer. Laughter

( 76) is caused by the sudden realization of an incongruity between a conception and the real object with which it is connected. Of the theories that have been so far mentioned, Schopenhauer's seems to be the most basic, for it analyzes mirthfulness as a psychological process with objective factors.

Herbert Spencer's idea that laughter indicates an effort which suddenly encounters a void is not fundamentally different from Kant's, while Sully's statement that laughter is due to a sudden release from a strained and tense situation, is another form of Kant's explanation. Bergson expresses the belief that laughter is primarily caused by the appearance of mechanical inelasticity in human life, which is another way of viewing Schopenhauer's incongruity explanation. Weeks declares that "when a man has only one idea, that idea is as serious as can be ; when he laughs he is virtually saying that he has had another idea."[1] These single theory discussions of laughter are enlightening but partial. The most synthetic treatment of the subject is that by Dr. Sidis,[2] which is extensively illustrated, but is not entirely in harmony with the conclusions of the latest psychological researches.[3]


The foregoing discussion reveals the complex nature of mirthful attitudes. They are characterized by distinctive physical reactions. An examination of hearty laughter shows that at least ninety per cent of the subjects were enjoying at the time a fair degree of physical health and mental exuberance. If an individual has worked long hours of tedious labor without sleep, if he has recently suffered serious financial losses, if loved ones are dangerously ill, then it appears that the ordinary causes of laughter do not produce mirthful behavior. It is in the most playful and the most exuberant hours of life that mirthful attitudes flourish best. The joy-in-living spirit of a group of girls easily bubbles over into ripples of silly laughter. The exuberant laughter of boys may easily be accounted for in a similar way.

Relief from strained situations sometimes produces mirthful behavior. Observe children released from long hours of study and recitation, rush forth from school buildings with peals of joy. Sudden release from either physical or mental strain may be counted one of the simpler causes of laughter. Exhaustion when unexpectedly relieved may result in vio-

( 77) -lent, hysterical laughter, which is an abnormal and pathological phenomenon. A sunny disposition is an excellent sub-soil for the development of mirthful attitudes. A vivacious temperament is productive of far more mirthful behavior than a phlegmatic one. Mercurial persons laugh more than those given to deep reflection. A person of the latter type may experience mirth even when he shows no visible signs thereof. He reports subjective pleasure in many cases in which other persons break out into laughter. Hence, one wonders that Bergson should identify the cause of laughter with intelligence, pure and simple, and say that "laughter is incompatible with emotion. [4] It is true that intelligence is a necessary factor, and yet children often manifest uproarious and prolonged laughter over an occurrence which an intellectual adult will scarcely notice. Laughter does not go with sorrow and not as a rule with anger, but is accompanied by the emotion of joy. In a large majority of cases a pleasant feeling or emotional organic tone precedes and accompanies mirthful responses.

Laughter is born of social contacts. Whenever two or more persons who are somewhat like-minded are gathered together under agreeable circumstances, they are apt to burst out into laughter at any moment ; while if a person who is alone is heard to laugh long and heartily he is at once interrogated, and if he does so frequently his sanity is suspected. Laughter roots in a social situation.

A child may be stimulated to laugh upon hearing another child or adult laughing; his neuro-muscular mechanism is "set-off" by the sensory stimuli. In the same way sometimes hearing one's self laugh stimulates the individual's laughter mechanism into renewed and invigorated laughter, and the person asserts that he cannot stop laughing. This type of phenomenon is a result of the operation of sympathetic emotion or vibration, with its consequent release of similarly organized neuro-muscular mechanisms.


Intersocial stimulation causes persons sometimes to feign mirth. One may laugh in order to seem interested in the story or incident that is being related. Even though the matter may not seem to him humorous, he laughs out of respect for the host or speaker, and for conventional and courtesy reasons,—in order to be considered like other people, or in order not to be conspicuous. The listener may fail to catch the point of a story or a situation, but joins heartily in group laughter. When other persons

(78) are responding to a choice bit of comedy, it often seems wiser to participate even though the point has not been grasped, than to appear stupid or stolid.

Mirth is occasionally assumed in order to cover up an insult. A person does not want to acknowledge openly that he has been treated disrespectfully, and so will parry the thrust by a laugh. One may be asked an embarrassing or impertinent question, but in order not to show his feelings in the presence of spectators, he will "laugh it off." This occurrence represents a sublimation of a flood of angry or shameful feelings into an outward expression that is directly contrary in type to anger or shame, and thus conceals the true inward state. In these cases the sublimation of energy into a few short, explosive laughs perhaps gives the individual necessary relief and enables him to think more clearly. Another implication is that the situation is not nearly as serious or grave as the questioner or antagonist believes or would have the spectators believe; consequently, the one who is questioned or challenged is relieved of embarrassment or confusion, and normal social relationships are re-established.

A mirthful attitude is sometimes resorted to in order to cover pain. A person may camouflage pain with laughter, and conceal an offended pride with assumed gayety. Laughter may be utilized to sidetrack attention from one's genuine tears of pain or anger. A four-year old boy picked himself up after a hard fall, rubbed his bleeding knee, and laughing said through his tears to the spectators : "Wasn't that a joke on me?"

Children and some adults will indulge in laughter in order to attract attention. The girl who laughs the loudest may be the one who is wearing the bright new ribbon or the latest fad in sweaters, or the boy who laughs above the boisterous behavior of the "gang" may be a deliberate candidate for hero worship.

Then there is laughter that the paid entertainer assumes in order to get others to laugh. If he simulates laughter well enough, others by reflex action will translate his feigned mood into a genuine one.


The mirthful attitude is stimulated most frequently by incongruous actions. Incongruity consists in the unexpected, the somewhat unnatural, of making abrupt movements when smooth action is in order, and of making simple mistakes in behavior. A dignified man runs after his wind-blown hat, a boy with a basket of eggs falls down, a dog chases his tail—these are mirth-provoking incongruities. The Charlie Chaplin films succeed

( 79) because of incongruous actions and situations. The humor in A House-Boat on the Styx springs from the bringing together of famous characters with their widely divergent ways and experiences, for the result is an incongruous juxtaposition of events and personalities.

In this connection Bergson has pointed out that incongruity frequently consists in mechanical movements or gestures where the naturally human is expected. This emphasis on the mechanical in the human is well placed, although it does not cover all the antecedent factors in mirthfulness. The comic physiognomy is essentially a mechanical facial gesture. The awkward gesture of the hand of a public speaker upon repetition attracts attention to its mechanicalness and becomes ludicrous. The dignified person who falls, falls hard, that is, mechanically. The goat who rears and butts whenever his forehead is pressed acts mechanically, and hence comically.


Mirthful attitudes are generated by incongruous ideas, as well as by incongruous actions. The extensive analysis by Boris Sidis has been modified here; and new illustrations are as a rule given.[5] The incongruous idea appears in a variety of guises. I. Illogical statements. Many of the Pat and Mike stories are of this character. The obvious is on the surface, but a slight examination reveals a contradiction, as for instance :

Pat was breathlessly running along a country road in Ireland one day when he was accosted by Mike who asked him why he was hurrying so fast, and Pat replied: "I have a long way to go, and I want to get there before I'm all tired out."

2. Grammatical and rhetorical errors. The assertions of children afford many illustrations of this type of incongruity. The child in attempting to use phrases or words which he has heard or overheard in conversation is apt to use them in wrong connections, or to put them together in ways which to his elders are out of harmony with usages, as indicated in these examples :

Don't unbusy me.

The sun is rising down (setting).

You two people are sitting down and we two people are sitting up (standing).

3. Idiomatical and related mistakes. Children, foreigners, and uneducated persons are often the victims of the mistaken use of words and

(80) phrases. The foreigner in any land falls into wrong uses of the native tongue. Incongruity may arise from using the phrases and terms of a foreign language according to language patterns of one's own tongue. Incongruities of this type are illustrated in the "Togo"stories by Wallace Irwin.

I welcome lobster cordially, yet I never could make them set quietly on my digestion.

While I was setting peeling potatoes of suddenly come Indiana (Indian) yell befront of my back while stool leg on which I was occupying flop uply so confused that I were deposed to floor with potatoes pouring over my brain.

4. The play on words. When a Scotch regiment was marching to the front in France, a French soldier who was watching them said : "They can't be men, for they wear skirts, and they can't be women for they have mustaches." "I have it," said another poilu, "they're that famous Middle-sex regiment from London." The pun is a higher type of logical incongruity than any of the forms which have already been noted. It often relieves a strained social situation, as illustrated in the case of de Reszke, a famous Polish artist, who was in Paris at the time his famous fellow countryman, Paderewski, gave a recital there. At a dinner party another guest put the somewhat tactless question, "Who is the most popular artist on the musical stage ?" "Pas de Reszke," flashed back the great tenor, thus punningly denying his own claim, and in its stead asserting that of Paderewski.[6]

5. Overstatement or understatement that is moderate and implied. Lying is not humorous, for it deliberately harms and misrepresents and thus produces antagonistic rather than mirthful reactions. A House-Boat on the Styx affords many illustrations of overstatement. After deliberate calculation and patient waiting for thirteen days the hunter finds that the sixty-eight ducks which he has been observing have formed in a straight line. The powder is minutely estimated and a valuable pearl—since the marksman has no bullets—is used as the instrument of destruction. The sixty-eight ducks are killed. The pearl traveled through the body of sixty-seven and retained enough force to kill the sixty-eighth, in whose body it was found—and saved, as calculated.

6. A sudden change from the serious to the trifling or ridiculous. Kant's theory of nullification of expectation fits in here. Dr. Sidis refers to "Pat" who upon being upbraided for not showing intelligence gave the following explanation : "I was a bright man at birth but when I was a

( 81) few days old, my nurse exchanged me for another baby who was a fool."

7. Unintended suggestion. This type generally results from careless use of language, and occasionally in spite of careful use of terms which may have more than one meaning. A church in a western town must hold long services for it recently announced : "The regular services will commence next Sunday evening at 7 o'clock and continue until further notice."

One day two opposing lawyers in court became angry at one another and one of them pointing to the other said : "That attorney is the ugliest and meanest man in town." "You forget yourself, you forget yourself, Mr. Smith," said the court, rapping for order with his gavel.


There is laughter which is simply ridiculous; a person is derided for incongruous or alleged incongruous conduct, for conduct that is out of harmony with group or personal standards. Humorous exaggeration, which may be decidedly caustic, is sometimes employed. Then there is the ironical laugh which is induced by covert satire. There is laughter, also, which is purely and openly sarcastic, biting, and generally anti-social. It deliberately misrepresents; even the congruous is made to seem incongruous. Social ridicule of this sort, one of the most vicious forms of social control, is highly dangerous.

Repartee is that process by which a person who makes another to appear ludicrous is himself put into an incongruous position. It includes both an intellectual element and promptness. A lawyer said of the diminutive counsel who opposed him: "He is so small that I could put him in my pocket." But the opposing counsel promptly shouted back, "If you did, you'd have more brains in your pocket than in your head," and reversed the tide of invidious laughter.


Humorous laughter directs attention to an individual's weaknesses and incongruities, but always contains at least mild sympathetic elements. It is good natured, and may be entirely restrained if it is likely to do harm. Sometimes however it holds within the depths of its emotional manifestations elements which are corrective and which constitute reproof.

Wit leads to laughter by intellectual interpretations of subtle incon-

( 82) -gruities. It includes the pun, repartee, and involves considerable thought power; its particular trait is quickness; if delayed, time eliminates the sharpness of the incongruity.


The group laughs at almost any mistake or incongruity in conduct or speech of the individual. If the error is easily discernible, the laughter of the group may be spontaneous, and the individual victim or victims greatly embarrassed. Spontaneous group laughter is often very hard to bear by the individual, for it is experienced so unexpectedly that he is apt to lose his normal self control. The implication is that the mistake is so evidently simple that the given individual should not have made it; it is a reflection upon his mental ability.

If the error is deep-seated it may not be detected by the members of the group at once, and the laughter of the group may be delayed. The individual thus is given time to recognize his own mistake and to prepare himself for withstanding the laughter of the group. The fact that the group does not recognize the error at once implies that its subtlety partially excuses the making of it.

Sometimes the group is prejudiced against an individual, and it may be even organized to embarrass him or the cause which he represents ; and he becomes the victim of concerted, even of malicious, laughter. A person is apt to feel a gross sense of injustice because of the disadvantages at which group ridicule puts him; he experiences' a deep sense of social isolation; and may develop a fighting attitude.


Mirthful nature may be analyzed from still another angle. I may laugh at others; I may let others laugh at me ; and I may publicly laugh at myself. It is easy upon seeing the incongruities of other persons to burst into exclamation and laughter. Unrestrained laughter at others is rudeness; it indicates that the individual who so conducts himself is unsympathetic.

To let others laugh at my incongruities and blunders requires self-control on my part, and a habitual adjustment to this sort of experience. If I can cover my chagrin and embarrassment, the group's laughter is kept from being prolonged. By seeming to enjoy the group's laughter at me, I seem to bifurcate myself—I seem to identify myself with the group and hence the group easily develops a fellow feeling for me.

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If I can publicly let others laugh at my blunders and defeats, then I have reached a superior stage of self discipline. I may deliberately allow or even invite the group to discipline me, and thus give the impression of complete group alignment. The members of the group recognize my weaknesses as being related to their own foibles, and in consequence I am easily accepted into the social consciousness of my fellows. After his first defeat for the presidency Mr. Bryan achieved a national reputation as an adept in winning sympathy by telling good stories "on" himself. This is one of the cleverest ways of disarming one's opponents.


Social laughter is a corrective. It arouses fear, "restrains eccentricity," and prevents individuals from innocently straying far from group conventions and standards. It is a patent means of group tyranny and produces conformity in cases in which conformity is of no use to the group but is costly to the individual, e.g., "ridicule of the shiny elbows of the janitor."

Social laughter prevents groups from becoming mechanically inelastic. It helps the members keep "in touch." When individuals laugh together they are apt to feel more kindly toward one another. Laughter socializes those who laugh together, but not as a rule the laugher and laughee. For example : (i) A laughs at C, which usually will irritate C ; (2) A and B laugh at C, with the result that A and B feel more alike, while C may feel ostracized; (3) C gives A and B a chance to laugh at him, for example, "tells one" on himself, which causes A and B to feel kindlier toward him and to unify all three. Mirthfulness heightens the group tone; many a tense social situation is relieved by a humorous sally.

On the other hand, one who would voice a strange idea, no matter how worthy it may be, must brave social laughter or ridicule, and by standing out successfully against the group, becomes individualized. In an important sense, mirthfulness is antagonistic to sympathy. If one puts himself completely in the place of another, he will rarely laugh at the other. Thus, mirthfulness may be unsympathetic, impersonal, objective, and individualizing.

Mirthfulness has survival and success values. Mirthfulness builds up both the physical and mental nature of a person. It shakes him up, stimulates, relaxes, and recreates him. It sets his organism in better tune and enables him to laugh at his duller moments and blunders, thus restoring him to a normal personal equilibrium. Mirthfulness is an open

( 84) sesame to the good will of other persons ; it prevents an individual from taking himself too seriously and restores him to the fellowship of social group life. No national characters in the United States in recent decades have so well illustrated this principle as William Howard Taft in his public attitude toward his inglorious defeat for re-election in 1912, e.g., his calling himself "the worst-licked man who ever ran for President;" and William Jennings Bryan in his references to similar defeats, e.g., his referring back to 1896 when he "first began running for the Presidency." By a mirthful attitude one can come back anew, or maintain mental youthfulness, and multiply his social efficiency. Through mirthfulness one can gain or regain a normal, well-balanced development of all the natural powers of his personality. A mirthful attitude sanely used may be rated as one of the most useful assets for all participants in intersocial stimulation.


1. A mirthful attitude involves the recognition of mildly incongruous situations, the incongrous actions of one's fellows, and incongruous ideas.

2. Mirthful nature arises out of elemental factors, such as a favorable tone of health, surplus energy, play and gregarious tendencies.

3. Important variations of mirth are humor, wit, repartee, and ridicule; each has its specific social meanings.

4. Group laughter is a powerful form of social control.

5. Laughter is both a social corrective and a socializing agent.


1. What is a mirthful attitude?

2. State the laughter theories of (a) Aristotle, (b) Hobbes, (c) Kant, (d) Schopenhauer, (e) Spencer, (f) Bergson.

3. Explain : "Laughter is born of social contacts."

4. What is meant by a spurious mirthful attitude?

5. Why do incongruous actions create mirth?

6. Why do incongruous ideas represent a superior but a less common cause of laughter than incongruous actions?

7. Distinguish between ridicule and repartee.

8. Which is easiest to bear, spontaneous or delayed group laughter?

9. Explain : "Social laughter is a corrective."

10. Explain : "Laughter socializes."

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1. Why is mirth a subject important enough for serious discussion?

2. Why is it worth while to develop the habit of seeing the humorous phases of life?

3. What is Shakespeare's meaning when he speaks of being "stabbed with laughter ?"

4.To what does Milton refer when he writes of "laughter holding both his sides?"

5. Why do we laugh at the incongruous or degrading experiences of others instead of feeling grieved?

6. Why is a city dude in the country a mirth producing object?

7. Why is a "hayseed" in the city an even greater comic object?

8. Illustrate : Laughter kills innovations.

9. Why is man more afraid of social ridicule than of severe physical punishment?

10. Explain : "The true hero is one who can ignore social laughter."

11. Why do people never laugh at stories which involve stuttering or which describe the antics of an intoxicated person?

12. Why are the actions of an intoxicated man more productive of laughter than the actions of an intoxicated woman?

13. Why does a wry face that simulates pain produce laughter?

14. Why does the entrance of a dog into a lecture room filled with college students create a mirthful outbreak?

15. To what type of individuals is the comic sheet most laughable?

16. What is the difference between the laughable and the silly?

17. Why is it laughable to see the waves dash unexpectedly over a person

who is walking along the beach?

18. Why did audiences laugh heartily even at the most genuinely serious remark of Mark Twain?

19. Why is a trivial interruption that occurs during a prayer service often laughable?

20. Why are deaf people and not blind people used in comedies?

21. What is the leading social value in laughter?


Bergson, Henri, Laughter (Macmillan, 1914).

Bliss, S. H., "The Origin of Laughter," Amer. Jour. of Psychology, 26: 236-46.

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Hall and Allin, "The Psychology of Tickling, Laughing, and the Comic," Amer. Jour. of Psychology, IX: I-41.

Meredith, George, Essay on Comedy and the Comic Spirit (Scribners, 1909).

Patrick, G. T. S., The Psychology of Relaxation (Houghton Mifflin, 1916), Ch. III.

Sidis, Boris, The Psychology of Laughter (Macmillan, 1913).

Sully, James, An Essay on Laughter (Longmans, Green: 1907).


  1. The Control of the Social Mind (Appleton, 1923), p. 177.
  2. The Psychology of Laughter (Appleton, 1913).
  3. For other extended discussions of laughter, see Sully's An Essay on Laughter (Longmans, Green: 1907), and Bergson's Laughter (Macmillan, 1914).
  4. Laughter, Pp. 5 - 39.
  5. The Psychology of Laughter (Appleton, 1913).
  6. Living Age, 318:92.

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