Humor has long been the subject of serious research among psychologists, linguists, sociologists, philosophers, and neuroscientists. There’s an entire journal devoted to the topic and, though it may be hard to believe when you’re engrossed in the latest Hangover movie, humor is so much more than just a laughing matter.
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein reportedly told his friend, philosopher Norman Malcolm, that “a serious and good philosophical work could be written that would consist entirely of jokes (without being facetious.)” He believed the wordplay we laugh at helps reveal our unquestioned assumptions about the world.
“Wittgenstein thought that language was our window into underlying conceptions that we have, that often aren’t explicit,” David Boersema, philosophy professor at Pacific University, tells Quartz. “By attending to the language, we can see where we make these conceptual shifts.”
To this end, there are countless theories on the significance of what makes us laugh. One of the most prominent ideas is that humor is a means of establishing a connection. Charles Taliaferro, philosophy professor at St. Olaf College, tells Quartz that jokes are a means of establishing insiders and outsiders.
“Laughter is, basically, a voluntary matter,” he says. “Therefore when people laugh together at some shared joke, they form, however briefly and in an ephemeral way, a bond. Almost any joke can then become an ‘inside joke’ insofar as you-had-to-be-there or you reference the first telling.”
Boersema adds that humor is a way to “share our humanity with one another and share our foibles.” Jokes are often a means of referencing a mistake and displaying potential vulnerability, and so are a way of connecting with others.
Meanwhile Peter McGraw, marketing and psychology professor at the University of Colorado, who has written a book on humor, says that laughing at jokes developed out of primates play-fighting. Just as play-fighting is simultaneously threatening, yet safe, McGraw believes we laugh at “benign violations”—something that should be troubling, but becomes benign in a joke format.
But our ability to make such bonds—to show vulnerability or engage in play-fighting—depends on individual personalities. So while some people find is easy to be humorous and form bonds with large groups of people, others can only be funny (and therefore intimate) once they’re extremely close to another person.
Intimacy isn’t the only role of humor. Many believe that laughter is a means of expressing superiority—a notion espoused by Hobbes and Descartes, among others. And though it’s difficult to expand this theory to apply to all manner of jokes, there’s certainly a distinct brand of humor that’s based on a desire for supremacy, like dumb blonde jokes, Boersema says. “The idea is: ‘Dumb blondes are so dumb they do x, but I would never do that because I’m smarter than those dumb blondes.’ We laugh at other people instead of with them.”
Humor is also an expression of culture—some jokes simply will not translate, for example—and can speak to certain characteristics of society.
Taliaferro says he studied humor alongside comedic student Allison Lonigro, and found that comedy has greatest breadth in just, fair societies. “Of course, in a tyranny or ‘closed society’ there might be, and often is, a wickedly funny, underground and subversive form of humor,” he adds.“But under conditions of the fear of censorship and suppression, when comedy might be brave and an important form of resistance, it will be more constrained and tense than a society which is not ambitiously censorious.”
And so what we laugh at isn’t simply a reflection of personal taste, but a symptom of our personality and culture. Ultimately, though, understanding this won’t make a joke much funnier or help you develop a sense of humor.
“I always think of humor along very analogous lines to art,” says Boersema. “If you get it, you get it, and there’s an immediate response. If someone has to explain it to you, then you might think it’s funny but probably not in the same way.”