On the Psychology of Humor

Jeffrey H. Goldstein, in his essay “The Healing Power of Laughter”, wrote that in the mind of Dr. Sigmund Freud there were two separate kinds of humor, “hostile wit” and “benign humor”. These are the two types of humor Freud described in his book, “Jokes and Their Relation To The Unconscious”.

In specifying between hostile and obscene jokes and other types of humor related to them, Freud also made references to the underlying causes of humor. When he used the word “comic” he was not referring to a comedian, but to the specific personality trait one has within their psyche. He saw jokes as an object. “A joke is now seen to be a psychical factor possessed of power: its weight, thrown into one scale or the other, can be decisive” (Strachey 133). Jokes were not just a way of passing time, but as a way of releasing repressed complexes that were in each of us. Through the telling of a joke we could thereby release tensions and aggressions that went otherwise unreleased and sequentially caused us pain, unhappiness, frustration, and/or disillusionment.

A common phrase is, “I want to kill…” and a person’s name is inserted. The speaker truly desires to murder the person, but due to predetermined levels of morality and civil law the person simply cannot kill whomever he or she wishes. This is the root of frustration and by telling the joke it becomes a psychological release valve. The person telling the joke is actually enacting a fantasy within his or her mind. If the person the speaker is telling the joke to finds it funny, then the listener is not laughing from enjoyment but can associate with the speaker and unconsciously shares the same desire. Likewise, if the listener didn’t find the joke funny than he or she didn’t share the desire and the joke falls flat. As Freud pointed out, “…it is most doubtful whether a person who gives free play to a joke must necessarily know its precise intention” (Strachey 104).

Benign humor was not the term used by Freud but empathetic humor. Benign implies a gentleness or kindness. Empathetic humor is just as self-serving as hostile wit, it’s just less aggressive. According to Freud:

“A person appears comic to us if, in comparison with ourselves, he makes too great an expenditure on his bodily functions and too little on his mental ones; and in both of these cases our laughter expresses a pleasurable sense of superiority which we feel in relation to him…if the relation to the two cases are reversed – if his physical expenditure is less than ours or his mental expenditure is greater then we no longer laugh, we are filled with astonishment and admiration” (Strachey 195).

It’s the relation to the comic in a particular situation that we relate to, for we are always aware that we would act the same way the comic does if we were in a similar situation. It’s the fact that we are not floundering about in that situation, but observing the comic, that brings us to a sense of superiority.

In the case of hostile wit, the brutal hostility of the past, now forbidden by law, has been replaced by an abusive style of speech. By making our enemy small through the use of hostile wit we overcome him or her. “A joke will allow us to exploit something ridiculous in our enemy which we could not, on account of obstacles in the way, bring forward openly or consciously; once again, the joke will evade restrictions and open sources of pleasure that have become inaccessible” (Strachey 103).

Jokes are not icebreakers on a first date, hilarious conversational devices, or entertainment but tools for the human psyche with which to handle life’s frustrations and disappointments. They are a means to circumnavigate that which causes us pain that cannot be denied, but must be dealt with just the same. As Freud himself put it:

So long as the art of healing has not gone further in making our life safe and so long as social arrangements do no more to make it more enjoyable, so long will it be impossible to stifle the voice within us that rebels against the demands of morality” (Strachey 110).

Works Cited

Freud, Sigmund. Jokes and Their Relation To The Unconscious. Ed. James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton And Company, 1960.

Goldstein, Jeffrey H.. “The Healing Power of Laughter.” The Conscious Reader. Fifth Ed. Eds. Caroline Shrodes, Harry Finestone, Michael Shugrue. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1992.