The science behind what makes things funny

Okay, we fibbed. While we will be sharing the theories of how jokes work, we can’t actually promise to teach you to be funny. Because, despite the hypotheses, philosophies, rules and formulas, a joke shared between two brains, much like love, is essentially intangible. It’s hidden alchemy. The truth is we don’t completely understand what makes people laugh.

Our blog about why it’s okay to be funny about serious things was super fun and fascinating to research, but it did lead to a bigger question: why are certain things funny? This piece is as good a place as any to read about the science behind it. (There are some nice additional resources referenced in there, including a Quantum Theory of Humour and something about unicycles.) But, to humour ourselves, we wanted to summarise the kinds of situations that tickle our collective funny bones.


The oldest theory to unpack humour began with Plato in 5th-century Greece. (Much like justice systems and beard-grooming routines, it has been somewhat refined since then.) Called the superiority theory, it suggests that you find something funny when it makes you feel superior to the butt of the joke – even if it’s your (former or future) self. Plato was a critic of laughter, however, complaining that it is malicious and overrides rational self-control, going so far as to advise in his most famous work, Republic, that heads of state avoid it altogether. (Shh, don’t tell ours.)

The second argument, relief theory, puts forward that we laugh at the release of tension created by our fears, the expression of something that is otherwise forbidden, or at the way a certain conflict in the joke set-up is resolved. So this chortle is birthed more by the body, not the brain. We know that laughter can minimise anxiety and pain, and in this context it is also said to release ‘psychic energy’ according to the likes of Herbert Spencer and Sigmund Freud.

Then there’s the incongruity theory: that we find it funny when our expectations and reality don’t match, when conventions are undermined by an absurd situation, or when something has two incompatible interpretations. Resolving this incongruity can result in further amusement, most often in writing.


In an attempt to expand on and unify some of the above ideas, two researchers called A. Peter McGraw and Caleb Warren came up with benign violation theory or BVT. According to BVT, there are three conditions that, when occurring simultaneously, create a LOLworthy situation:

1. That there is a mutually understood norm in place dictating what is acceptable. (This could be moral, social, professional, physical…)
2. That this norm is breached in a non-threatening or harmless (benign) way.
3. That the viewer is distant enough from the violation – emotionally, temporally, geographically, or even by reality, if they know the situation is imaginary – to find it amusing.

There seems to be a sweet spot where the balance is just right between how bad the violation is and how distant it is. You may have noticed that we are big fans of benign violations at Novation, liking to play with expectations of how legal people (and documents!) ‘should’ dress and express themselves.

If you’ve ever wondered why people can’t tickle themselves (uh… to produce laughter, anyway), BVT explains: it simply is not a violation. Conversely, as this article points out rather creepily, you are very unlikely to laugh if a stranger tries to tickle you, since nothing about that would be benign.

A limitation of a BVT-based joke, as this paper warns, is that there could be a disagreement between the two parties on the norms in question or how harmful something is, or there could be an imbalance of power. These scenarios could result in offence or even abuse. Not a laughing matter.


Back to superiority theory… Apparently our ability to notice mistakes not only enables us to be amused, but it elevates our social status and allows us to attract reproductive partners. (Some might disagree on the effectiveness of this particular aphrodisiac, however.)

This Scientific American article puts it neatly: ‘Because grasping…incongruities requires a store of knowledge and beliefs, shared laughter signals a commonality of worldviews, preferences and convictions, which reinforces social ties and the sense of belonging to the same group.’

So laughter can bring people together, but not all LOLs are nice. Another pair of researchers divided human laughter into two types. Duchenne laughter is spontaneous, emotional, impulsive and involuntary; a genuine expression of amusement and joy. It is named after scholar Guillaume-Benjamin-Amand Duchenne de Boulogne, who first described it in the mid-19th century. Conversely, non-Duchenne laughter (possibly suffered by the aforementioned for his ridiculously long name), is a studied social performance, used to punctuate a conversation, and not a response to anything actually funny. This can be ‘strategic, calculated, and even derisory and aggressive’. Ha. Ha. Ha.



Interested in adding your own brand of humour to your work? (We highly recommend it in the workplace to foster more creative problem solving, build trust, improve memory recall and cope with unpleasantness.) It’s helpful to note that folks who write jokes for a living rely on a few time-tested strategies. One of these conventions in comedy is called the rule of three. There are many reasons for this number, ranging from needing at least three things in a row to create a pattern, to the fact that three things just sound better rhythmically.

Just ask Billy the Bard’s three witches in Macbeth (‘When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain?’) or Mark Antony in Julius Caesar (‘Friends, Romans, countrymen…’) or in fact the real-life Julius Caesar himself (‘I came, I saw, I conquered’).

Using three characters, scenarios, wishes (bears, goats, wise men…) also allows you to build tension, or bring in an element of the unexpected with a third absurd thing after the set-up.

But even if you know the so-called rules, writing good jokes is no piece of cake. Some of the funniest people around, talk-show hosts, rely on a room of writers to submit scores of one-liners that never see the light of day. Conan writer and comedian Laurie Kilmartin was one such contributor, who famously revealed her ‘transitions list’, a catalogue of phrases to help move from the set up of a joke to the punchline.

What’s surprisingly not on the list? ‘That’s what she said…’

Interested in more like this? Novcon founder Elizabeth de Stadler will be presenting a talk ‘Let’s make law funny AF’ at The BoLD (Business of Legal Design) Summit spring edition in March 2022. The event will be hosted by Legal Creatives, an educational platform that offers virtual experiences and immersive programmes teaching 21st century skills for the law to legal professionals worldwide.

Please Share!