benign violation
March 5, 2015

The science of humor: Benign Violation Theory

Brian Galloway for - @brigallo17

We’re back and ready to continue our conversation about the science of humor. Hopefully our last few funny forays tickled your fancy, and we have another: Benign Violation Theory.

This idea is a refinement of last week’s incongruity theory. Benign violation theory is the brainchild of Dr. Peter McGraw, the head of the humor research lab (HuRL- yes that’s actually the acronym) at the University of Colorado Boulder.

[STORY: The science of humor: Incongruity theory]

His team’s research boils down to the idea that humor stems from the benign violation of a social, linguistic, or moral norm. Both criteria are needed and they have to happen simultaneously. Something benign that’s not a violation is just boring, and a violation that’s malign is just scary.

Here, let us explain

It sounds complicated, but it’s easy to see if we just show you. For example: Just imagine a man driving down the road. There’s no violation, so it’s not funny.

Now imagine that same man driving down the road, but his trailer is missing a tire and he decided to replace it with a stick. There’s obviously a violation—cars use wheels instead of sticks, and it’s benign because nobody’s being hurt. But this would never happen, right?

Just when you think you’ve seen it all, the internet proves you wrong.

Now picture the same man driving into a tree instead of driving with a tree. There’s a violation, but it’s malign. Someone got hurt—not funny.

Context matters

There is a huge difference between a benign violation and a malign violation. The same situation can be funny or serious depending on the context. Watch this:

So here we have a guy who bought a motorcycle and immediately crashed. Tiny falls like this one are benign because nobody is hurt—the man and his bike might have a few scratches but the only thing he injured was his pride. Violations must be safe and acceptable if it’s going to be funny.

This all changes if we tell you that the man was seriously injured in the crash--or killed. There’s a violation, but it’s a malign one. (The guy was fine if you’re wondering.) Context is extremely important for the benign violation theory.

Other forms of humor

The benign violation theory applies to more than just situational comedy. The idea can explain why we enjoy wordplay.
It’s overused but still a good example—“A man walks into a bar.” Okay, no violation. “He says ouch.” There’s a violation- we were expecting the sentence to go in a certain way, but it violated our expectations in a benign fashion.

[STORY: The science of humor: Superiority theory]

Sarcasm is another subtle use of the theory. Changing the intended meaning of a sentence represents a benign violation. Texans don’t really mean it when they say, “Oh I just love snow and ice on the roads.” The difference in meaning between what was said and what was intended sets up a benign violation.

Try to spot benign violations next time you see a stand-up comedian or comedy movie. You’ll be surprised just how often comedians put this theory into practice.


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