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, 30 (1), 49-58

A Threshold Theory of the Humor Response


A Threshold Theory of the Humor Response

Robert Epstein et al. Behav Anal.


The humor response has long been considered mysterious, and it is given relatively little attention in modern experimental psychology, in spite of the fact that numerous studies suggest that it has substantial benefits for mood and health. Existing theories of humor fail to account for some of the most basic humor phenomena. On most occasions when a humor response occurs, certain verbal or visual stimuli (the "setup" stimuli, which function as an establishing operation) must precede a critical stimulus (such as a "punch line" or the final panel or critical feature of a cartoon), which then occasions a sudden "revelation" or "understanding"; this revelation is often accompanied by the humor response. We suggest that the setup stimuli increase the strength of the revelatory response to a point just below the threshold of awareness and that the critical stimulus, properly designed and timed, edges the revelatory response to a point just above threshold. We also suggest that it is this threshold phenomenon that produces most instances of the humor response. We discuss these issues in the context of some notable humor of Carl Rogers and B. F. Skinner.


Figure 1
Figure 1. Response strength over time, with the dashed lines indicating a threshold.
In Panel a, no humor response occurs because the target behavior (typically a verbal or perceptual response) occurs too rapidly; in the context of a joke, the punch line is too obvious. In Panel b, neither the preparation nor the trigger raises the target behavior to the threshold of awareness, so no humor response occurs. In Panel c, the target behavior weakens over time long before the trigger is presented, so the humor response is very weak or does not occur at all; in the context of a joke, this sometimes means that the listener failed to “get it” and perhaps that someone later explained it. In Panel d, the dynamics are optimal for providing a humor response: The strength of the target behavior is raised to just below the threshold of awareness, after which the trigger strengthens that response to a point just above that value. The humor response appears to be a by-product of this particular dynamic.

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