Benign Violations : Making Immoral Behavior Funny -Peter McGraw and Caleb Warren


This is an interesting paper that follows on fron Veatch’s theory of affective absudity. It follows the theory that humour arises from viloations that are simultaneously seen as benign otherwise known as Benign Violation theory (BVT).I have extracted the following quotes for future use.

Humor is a psychological state characterized by the positive emotion of amusement and the tendency to laugh (Gervais &Wilson, 2005; Martin, 2007; Veatch, 1998).

Violations can take a variety of forms (Veatch, 1998). From an evolutionary perspective, humorous violations likely originated as apparent physical threats, similar to those present in play fighting and tickling (Gervais & Wilson, 2005). As humans evolved, the situations that elicited humor likely expanded from apparent physical threats to a wider range of violations, including violations of personal dignity (e.g., slapstick, physical deformities), linguistic norms (e.g., unusual accents, malapropisms), social norms (e.g., eating from a sterile bedpan, strange behaviors), and even moral norms (e.g., bestiality, disrespectful behaviors). The benign-violation hypothesis suggests that anything that is threatening to one’s sense of how the world “ought to be” will be humorous, as long as the threatening situation also seems benign.

Where does the absurd come into the evolution of humorous violations? Tickling and play fighting seem to make too much sense to be absurd – at least they make sense to me in role playing, social bonding and skills learning. Possibly at the point of slapstick? But slapstick and mockery of deformities for instance still make sense, we’re laughing at things that are stupid or wrong or painful to others but these things still make sense, these are things that actually happen or exist. It depends on how we decide to define absurd in this instance. It may be that the absurd is simply ‘anything that is threatening to ones sense of how the world ought to be’ in which case if you agree with BVT it is everpresent.

In this paper five experiments are carried out to try and see if people are more likely to find a situation funny if it contains a perceived violation. In the second experiment they find that people who regard a situation as both ‘wrong’ and ‘not wrong’ were significantly more likely to find it funny.

we suspect that some humorous situations may arouse negative emotion in addition to amusement and laughter. A similar idea was initially suggested by Plato (trans. 1975), who believed that humor involves a mixture of pleasure and pain, and recent research has confirmed that some humorous experiences, such as tickling and toilet humor, involve mixed emotions (Harris & Alvarado, 2005; Hemenover & Schimmack, 2007).

The third experiment gave participants a one of two version of a story and asked them to give their responses to iy. One story involved a man stroking a kitten with his genitals which made the kitten purr (!) and the other was the same story but the man harmed the kitten by doing this (!!).  94% of people found this disgusting, 72% said it was wrong. However 61% of poeple found the harmless one amusing compared to 28% amused by the harmful version. amusement typically supplemented, rather than replaced, feelings of disgust.

The fourth study looked at how committed the perceiver is to the norm that is being violated. This involved a story about a church raffling oto vehicle as a promotion to perspective members. Th estudy found most people were disgusted but non church goers with a less strong commitment were much more likely to find the situation funny.#

“Comedy is tragedy plus time” (Carol Burnett, Wikiquote, 2010).

Psychological distance in its many forms—temporal, social, spatial, likelihood, or hypotheticality (Liberman & Trope, 2008)—may also make a violation seem more or less benign (Williams & Bargh, 2008). Comedians have long speculated that increasing psychological distance helps transform negative experiences into amusing ones.

(hence early jokes about 911 being condemmed as ‘too soon’. Famous example at Hugh Heffners roast)

“Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die” (Mel Brroks, Wikiquote, 2010).

The fifth test involved a story about  a man abusing a chicken before cooking and eating it. This was told to participants who had already been primed to be near or distancedto the scenario.  results were as expected.


2 thoughts on “Benign Violations : Making Immoral Behavior Funny -Peter McGraw and Caleb Warren

  1. Peter McGraw

    Hi, John. Thanks for the post.

    In case you are interested, I am giving a talk at London Business School (on humor and psychological distance) on Monday 1/16…

    All the best,
    peter mcgraw

    1. jonskibeat Post author

      Hello Peter,
      I am sorry I could not make it to London for your talk. I found Benign Violations very useful. I’m especially interested in the rise of absurd humour in response to this age of information and classification. My main area is Illustration but whether in art or comedy I always find the absurd appealing and I think it tends to work best when experienced simultaneously with something very ‘normal’,this is what attracted me to the benign violation theory. One aburdist view that I read recently by Thomas Nagel in Mortal Questions suggested that once we have looked at our lives and realised the absurdity, how far as a species we have come from our intended purpose, then we can go back to our work and our pastimes and live happily but with a kind of ironic enlightenment – a fine example of a benign violation resulting in humour!
      I’d be very interested if you had any opinions on the absurd or humour or if you could point me in the direction of any other writing you have done in this area.
      Many thanks,
      John Kilburn.


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