Seriously, Though: Do we laugh just to let off some steam?

The Relief Theory of Humor


“HA! That was close!!”

We can’t seem to escape the Relief Theory of humor: no matter how many times it is discarded as pseudoscience, it is picked up, dusted off, and adapted by a future generation based on a revised theory. Honestly, this may be for good reason, since it explains a lot.

In 1709, Lord Shaftesbury proposed that people have more energy than they can use. That extra energy, he believed, creates dangerous internal pressure; heaving, guffawing, and knee-slapping burns off the excess and relieves the pressure. Interestingly, this proposal is responsible for the word humor being associated with funny: 18th century thinkers believed energy gushed about in our bodily fluids, or humors; laughter was a humorous release. If Shaftesbury’s proposal were true, the phrase “letting off steam” would be almost literal, rather than figurative: a stern, un-laughing individual would be liable burst from internal pressure like a black bile boiler.

By the 19th Century it was clear that the four humors model of the body is bunk. However, Relief Theory was revised and revived by Herbert Spencer and Sigmund Freud. Whereas Shaftesbury’s Theory merely concerned physical energy, Spencer expanded the concept to include nervous energy. Consider this clip from an old Buster Keaton film:

Spencer would say that the train approaching Buster’s house causes us emotional stress – anxiety and sympathy as we anticipate this couple losing their home. But when the train unexpectedly misses, that unneeded emotional energy is released as a laugh. Oddly enough, when the second train smashes the house, we feel another burst of emotional energy – this time because the situation is resolved. John Dewey echoed Spencer, equating laughing with sighing with relief. Freud went further. Psychic energy, he explained, is what represses inappropriate feelings; humor is an expression of repressed feelings; laughter is a release of the now unneeded repression energy. (You can see how this ties into his larger psychoanalytic theories.)

The problem with these theories is that they are also bunk. What is “nervous” and “psychic” energy? Where is it generated? And Freud’s theories… well, lets just say they are very complicated and hard to relate to actual life experience. But Relief Theory has a strong appeal since people do laugh nervously and it feels like you’re letting off emotional pressure… And so most recently, it has been resurrected by some gelotologists in a variant I will call Averted Danger Theory.

Our bodies are pessimists – or at least sober realists. Upon perceiving a threat, the human body prepares for the worst: the heart rate increases, the senses become alert, and the muscles become tense. This is called the Fight-or-Flight Response since it prepares someone to either fight the threat or get the heck out of there. As handy as this reflex can be when escaping a mammoth or beating Neanderthal Thog with a mammoth bone (poor Thog always seems to get it in these posts), sometimes people are startled unnecessarily. Unfortunately, all that adrenaline and excitement has got to go somewhere. Averted Danger Theory posits that laughter resets the system after a false alarm – using up adrenaline and relieving tension in a safe way. As an example, consider how the characters laugh at the end of this movie clip. (I was unable to find a shorter cut of this scene on You Tube. You may wish to skip to 4:30 to zero in on the relevant part.)

This could explain many of the physiological benefits of laughter. Of course laughter lowers blood pressure – that’s what’s needed after a near-crisis. Contagious laughter alerts the rest of the clan that the danger has passed so they, too, can relax. Observe: people often laugh when doing dangerous things, like sky diving, riding rollercoasters, and bungee jumping. Perhaps this is because they’ve put themselves in apparently mortal danger. When it turns out they are still alive, their laughter reflex floods them with endorphins. Consider also how laughter calms raw nerves. Stage fright, for example, is a case of fight-or-flight misfire: the threat of public embarrassment cannot be punched in the nose or outrun, but you can’t explain the differences between physical and psychological danger to your pituitary gland. The age-old advice to picture an audience in its underwear attempts to trigger laughter in order to reset the body to a normal state. (Perhaps J K Rowling had this in mind when she has her Hogwarts’ students combat boggarts with absurdity.)

In this model, humor exists for the same reason we have stage fright: these caveman-aged responses can be triggered psychologically. A joke creates tension; a punchline releases it. Rowan Atkinson is one comic who ascribes to this theory, claiming that humor taps into our fears.

We sympathetically fear with Mr. Bean for his wellbeing and laugh when he’s OK. (Or do we laugh because he’s not us, so we know we’re OK? Or because he’s a fictional character, so we know Rowan Atkinson is OK? These nuances are up for debate.) Averted Danger Theory explains why taboo subjects – sex, bad etiquette, ethnic stereotypes, insults, etc. – are popular joke subjects. And have you ever laughed at a punchline but found the joke flat when you really thought about it? It seems that the mere anticipation inherent in listening to a joke can be enough to make you laugh at the end.

And then there’s tickling. Why do we laugh when tickled? A fly buzzing in your ear ‘tickles,’ but it doesn’t make you laugh. What’s the difference? Perhaps the tickling simulates a physical attack, triggering fight-or-flight; since the danger isn’t real, we laugh. A study at Yale University found infants laughed 15 times more when tickled by their mothers than by someone else. Presumably the babies were more likely to enjoy the experience because they knew their mothers were safe and that the tickling was play. Similarly, consider how much children enjoy being scared during play: a Daddy monster is a delirious, joyous mix of safety and scary. This balance can be tenuous: I’ve been romping about with nieces and nephews before when suddenly, with teary eyes, they insist I stop; then, after just a few moments of comfort, they ask the monster to come out again. And this isn’t just observable in small children. Tickling can be part of flirting and foreplay. Have you ever been flirtatiously tickled by someone you were not really ‘in to?’ Unfortunately I saw this a few times in high school when socially-awkward male friends tried tickling uninterested female friends. The result was squirmy pushes rather than playful giggles.

Averted Danger Theory also sheds some light on the darkest laughter. People laugh while doing atrocious things – killing, raping, and looting, for example. Dr. Stanley Milgram’s infamous obedience experiments produced this in a clinical setting: one third of his subjects laughed when they thought they were giving someone near-lethal electric shocks. During debriefing, they said that they knew torturing a stranger wasn’t funny, but they couldn’t help it. The extreme emotional stress of doing something horribly cruel can trigger a reflexive laugh-response for relief.

And then there is the strange. In 1962, hundreds of residents of Kashasha – a town in what is now Tanzania – experienced a laughter fit that lasted for months on end. Some have noted that this occurred right after the area received independence – a time of extreme political and social tension. Some propose this was a release of built up tension sustained by laughter’s feedback loops.

By replacing gurgling fluids and imaginary psychic energies with fight-or-flight, a Relief Theory has a lot to offer gelotologists – especially since it offers insight into some of the odd moments when we laugh without true humor. However, no theory about human nature is free of vehement detractors. Not all moments of relief are funny, they say, and not all funny moments involve relief. Take, for example, the clip from Star Wars above. When the trash compactor stops, the result is funny, but not for the same reasons the characters are laughing. The audience laughs at C3PO’s reaction. A sourpuss like Plato (aka a Platopuss) might say we feel superior to him, but that doesn’t feel right, does it? No, the humor is in the contrast between his erroneous utter despair and the others’ extreme jubilation. Fight-or-flight can’t explain that. Instead, gelotologists propose an alternative: the Incongruity Theory of Humor. And that just so happens to be the subject of my next post in this series.

This is the third post in my “Seriously Though” humor series. The first examined the spasmodic biological reflex we call laughter. The second considered the possibility that our (often mean-spirited) sense of humor evolved to foster group harmony. The fourth installment will consider the connection between laughter and learning.

As a friend and teacher of mine says when tackling a difficult subject outside his expertise, “Boy, I’m in the deep weeds here…” I am no expert on humor – just an avid reader. Here are the sources that I consulted for the parts of this series that examine the question: “Why do we laugh?”


The Anatomy of Laughter. Classroom Video On Demand. Films Media Group, 2003. Web. 21 Oct. 2014.

Bellows, Alan. “Gelotology 101: Anatomy of the best medicine.” Alien Hand Syndrome and Other Too-Weird-Not-To-Be-True Stories. New York: Workman Publishing Company Inc, 2009. 95-99. Print.

“In the Beginning: Humans and Environmental Change.” Global Change Program. University of Michigan, 14 Jan. 2005. Web. 30 Oct 2014.

Koestler, Arthur. “Humor and Wit.” Encyclopedia Britannica. New York: Encyclopedia Britannica Inc, 2002.

Lockhart, Kathryn. “Comics.” The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity. Ed. Robert Banks and R Paul Stevens. Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997. CDROM.

—-. “Humor.” The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity. Ed. Robert Banks and R Paul Stevens. Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997. CDROM.

Martin, Rod A. “Humor and Laughter.” Encyclopedia of Psychology. New York. 2000. Print.

Monro, D H. “Humor.” Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2nd Ed: 2006. Print.

Morreall, John. “Humor [Addendum].” Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2nd Ed: 2006. Print.

—–. “Philosophy of Humor.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Spring 2013 Ed. n.p. Web. 31 Oct 2014

Nilsen, Alleen Pace, and Nilsen, Don L F. “Humor.” New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. 1st Ed: 2005. Print.

Wallis, Jim. “The Truth Smirks.” Sojourners, Jul. 2009. Web. 30 Oct 2014.

“Yo Mama So Old Jokes.” Web. 2 Nov 2014


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