Motivation and emotion/Book/2019/Dark humour

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Dark humour:
Why do we enjoy dark humour?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Have you ever laughed when someone gets hurt by falling down or getting hit in the crotch? What about when someone referred to something dirty or sexual? Or, how about laughing at something without being able to explain why it was funny? Humor, though experienced in everyday life, is a concept that is not well understood. This is because humor is in the eye of the beholder; it varies person to person, so there is not a standard way of measuring or analyzing it. However, there are some consistencies with humor. Laughing at others' pain, for example, is a very common occurrence. Why is this? Why do we find others' misfortune amusing?

The focus of this chapter is to analyze some of the speculations for why we find certain things funny, particularly "dark" things. First, we will discuss the nature of humor itself, including the effects and benefits of having a good laugh. Then, we will dive into three main theories of why we specifically find dark, dirty, and obscure things funny.

Focus Points
  1. What is humor?
  2. How is humor good for us?
  3. Why do people like dark, dirty, and obscure humor?

What is humor?[edit | edit source]

If you had to describe 'humor' to someone, how would you describe it? You may say it is something that makes you laugh. Why do you laugh, though? You may say it is also something like a bad pun, where it is so ridiculous that it is funny. What is funny? If you think about children's movies, think about moments when kids laugh. Usually it has to do with the movie character falling in an exaggerated way or getting hit multiple times. They laugh at the character's pain and suffering. Why? When you start to really think about what humor is, your definition can start going in circles. as exemplified in Figure 1.

Figure 1. The cycle of trying to define humor.

Definition[edit | edit source]

Merriam-Webster (2019, p. 1) defines humor as, "the mental faculty of discovering, expressing, or appreciating the ludicrous or absurdly incongruous : the ability to be funny or to be amused by things that are funny". Even that is vague, as each person will find different things ludicrous and absurdly incongruous. Humor varies widely between ages, cultures, genders, etc. For example, young kids may giggle at the mere mention of 'pee-pee', while teenagers may make jokes about puberty, such as, 'Jokes about menstruation aren't funny, period'. As we get older some morph into the 'Dad-joke' phase including the quintessential, "Dad, I'm hungry'. Hi, Hungry, I'm Dad " joke. In between, there is a phase where many laugh at anything, be it the letter E, spelling words incorrectly on purpose such as 'succ', or describing everyday things oddly as in the case of calling a balloon an 'enslaved oxygen bag'.

Overall, there is no one, concise definition of humor, and every person finds different things humorous. Humor, despite all of its differences person to person, though, is universal. We all laugh and find things funny. It is a good thing, because humor and laughter does indeed play a beneficial role in our lives, both physically and mentally.

Benefits of humor and laughter[edit | edit source]

Table 1. Benefits of Humor and Laughter
Benefits Applications
Improves mental functioning Increases interpersonal responses, alertness, memory, self-esteem; lowers depression and loneliness (Overholser, 1991)
Exercises and relaxes muscles Exercises facial, chest, abdominal, and skeletal muscles; improves muscle tone, decreases muscle tension, and relieves discomfort (Berk, 2001)
Improves respiration Exercises the lungs and improves breathing and blood oxygen levels; relieves chronic respiratory conditions; reduces chances of bronchial infection and pneumonia (Berk, 2001)
Stimulates circulation Exercises the heart like aerobic exercise, followed by decreases in heart rate and blood pressure (Berk, 2001)
Decreases stress hormones Reduces stress (Wilkins & Eisenbraun, 2009)
Increases immune system defenses Alleviates conditions caused by stress (Kimata, 2004)
Increases production of endorphins Decreases pain and produces a euphoric state without liquor, drugs, or aerobic exercise (Manninen et al, 2017)
Promotes bonding between humans Allows us to become close through laughing and joking in social situations (Manninen et al, 2017)

Types of humor[edit | edit source]

There are a slew of various types of humor. This article will focus on three main types:

  1. Dark/Gallows Humor-Humor that uses morbid, grotesque, or depreciating situations, people, and objects as a basis for jokes
  2. Blue/Dirty Humor-Humor that uses sexual innuendos, bodily-functions, and gross situations, people, and objects as a basis for jokes
  3. Surreal/Obscure Humor-A class of humor that is amusing but for reasons you cannot explain

A more complete list of types of humor can be found here.

Why we like dark, dirty, obscure humor[edit | edit source]

Since humor is such an abstract, immeasurable concept, we can only make speculations regarding why we enjoy humor, especially dark, dirty, and obscure humor. In this section, three main philosophical theories will be discussed, the superiority theory, the relief theory, and the incongruity theory. Along with these, a few other subcategories and concepts will be discussed regarding our affinity for obscene humor.

Superiority theory[edit | edit source]

This humor theory speculates that humor derives from building one's self-esteem via putting one's past self or others down (Wills, 1981). If you have ever found joy in an opponent's sport team losing, a person you dislike getting yelled at by his/her boss, or making jokes that personally attack another person are all described by the Superiority Theory. Humans like to make themselves feel good, and one way that we do that is by putting others below ourselves. While making a direct comment about another's inferiority can be seen as rude, it can be more socially acceptable to poke fun at someone's flaws with a joke.

Schadenfreude[edit | edit source]

Schadenfreude is a German word that describes the experience of finding pleasure in other's pain or misfortunes (Leach et al, 2003). The core idea in Schadenfreude is dehumanizing others. "Dehumanization is the process of perceiving a person or social group as lacking the attributes that define what it means to be human" (Emory Health Sciences, 2018, para. 6). Schadenfreude is a sub-category of the Superiority Theory, as it describes the feeling of being superior based on when another person fails, trips, or deals with a misfortune. Children demonstrate this idea a lot, as many kid shows and movies have characters slip on banana peels, get hit in the crotch, or fall off a cliff to get laughter from the viewers.

Why do we experience this?[edit | edit source]

  1. Envy Theory: Pleasure from the idea that an enviable person is dealing with hardships or mishaps
    • Envy is caused by being jealous and wanting what someone else has. In one way, envy can be described as you thinking the other person is superior, and thus you want the object they have to become equals. If those enviable people are having troubles, it can make you see them as lower.
  2. Deserving-ness Theory: Pleasure from the idea that the person 'had it coming'
    • If a person who is causing you trouble gets in trouble themselves, you may see it as a payback for the issues they caused you.
  3. Intergroup-conflict theory: Pleasure from the idea that your 'group' is superior
    • Sporting Teams - People like when their favorite teams beat other teams
    • Racism - Caused by thinking one race is superior to another

(Emory Health Sciences, 2018)

Examples[edit | edit source]

  • Laughing when someone falls down
  • Having a guilty pleasure when someone you dislike scores badly on a test or gets yelled at by his/her boss
  • Feeling excited and laughing when a rival team makes a bad play or loses a sporting game
Figure 2. A complaint department sign which implies that a complaining customer would pull the pin off this grenade, thereby blowing them up.

Relief theory[edit | edit source]

The Relief Theory ascertains that we use humor to release tension or stress. This would help to explain why we laugh when we are nervous, in pain, or relieved about a situation (Wilkins & Eisenbraun, 2009). In other words, we use humor as a way to cope with situations that are morally or ethically difficult to handle.

Coping mechanisms[edit | edit source]

  1. Difficult situations
    • Figure 2. represents a dark possibility of how to deal with an unhappy customer. If someone were to actually be hurt after pulling this number, it would not be humorous. But, the relief theory explains that it is funny to think that a way of dealing with a difficult, complaining customer is to simply blow him/her up.
  2. Tragedy
    • When a patient was likely not to survive, a doctor made a dark joke, "to speak a truth no one else was willing to say. Maybe this is an example of gallows humor serving the function of rapid-truthing" (Watson, 2011, p. 2)
  3. Mortality
    • Joking about death can be seen as a way of fighting off the fear of our own mortality
  4. Pain/Grief
    • A study found that recent widows/widowers who used humor in their daily lives adjusted to their spouse's death more favorably (Lund et al, 2009).
    • Humor can be used to console those around you who are worried about you. If you are able to joke around while in pain, it demonstrates that you are able to be positive despite the negative situation.
      • With a lot of training, discipline, and practice, I managed to lose 6 kg. . . Still miss my left arm, though.
      • A wife walks in to the hospital room where her husband is staying. He has just gone through surgery to remove his infected left arm and left leg. "How are you doing, honey", she asks. "Don't worry," he says, "I'm all right now".

Dealing with anxiety[edit | edit source]

When dealing with anxious and stressful situations, humor can be utilized as a way to detach oneself from the threat and by changing your perspective of the situation. In studies dealing with university students and test anxiety, research has shown that humor:

  1. "produces a cognitive shift in perspective. . .that allows students to distance themselves from the immediate threat - the test" (Berk, 2000, p. 151)
  2. "promotes an objectivity that buffers the negative response and provides a sense of empowerment over the testing situation that can improve students’ mental functioning and performance" (Berk, 2000, p. 151)

Overall, in this study, Berk (2000) found that having some silly test answers reduced the students' testing anxiety and increased their performance. Instead of seeing a very serious, professional test, the student's[grammar?] were able use the funny answer choices as a way to perceive the test as not as big as a threat, and thus not as stressful. When the students' stress level decreased, their test scores increased. Using humor in this way to change your perspective of a situation can also be helpful in dealing with fear or anxiety in other threatening instances. For example, if you are scared of public speaking, you may try imagining everyone in their underwear as a way to help manage your fear during a speech. Since your audience is now being thought of as mostly nude, it makes them (the threat) more vulnerable and human, and therefore brings the threat level down.

Incongruity theory[edit | edit source]

The Incongruity Theory encompasses the idea that humor arises from the unexpected (Wilkins & Eisenbraun, 2009). Humans tend to like order, structure, and routine. We build normative expectations of what is supposed to happen based on varying circumstances and past experiences. So, when this 'norm' is disrupted and something occurs that doesn't fit into our expectations, we are taken aback, and we find humor in it.

Benign moral-violations theory[edit | edit source]

For an occurrence to truly be considered as unexpected, a few conditions must be met.

  1. A situation must violate social, moral, and/or accepted norms (go against what is expected)
  2. A situation must be benign (it must not affect you)
  3. The two first conditions must occur simultaneously

(McGraw et al, 2010)

Figure 3. A road sign that warns drivers of falling rocks and cows.

If these conditions are not met, then the situation will probably not be humorous.

Examples[edit | edit source]

  • The medical teams eating ice cream together got on the topic of "funniest beeper pages in the middle of the night"—for example, "Doctor, your patient is on fire" and "Doctor, your patient is covered in ants"—and "laughed until we could barely breathe" (Sobel, 2006, p.1114).
    • Reasons this is funny
      1. These would not be a pager that doctors typically receive, as patients do not usually catch fire/come in covered in ants
      2. The fact that the pagers are present tense implies that at that moment, the nurses were sending the messages while the patients ran around on fire/crawling with ants
      3. It meets the conditions above. The situation did indeed go against norms, as it was unexpected, it did not directly affect any of those who heard the beepers, and the two conditions occurred simultaneously.
  • Figure 3. also meets the criteria for it to be considered incongruous. This sign violates the norm that a cow should not be expected to fall from the sky. It also does not affect the reader. With these two happening at the same time, it follows the Benign Moral-Violations theory, which explains the Incongruity Theory.

Other speculations[edit | edit source]

While the three theories above would explain some reasons why we like making dark, dirty, obscure jokes, there are a few other speculations as well.

Creating social bonds[edit | edit source]

Figure 4. Cards Against Humanity is a game based upon making dark and dirty jokes for fun.

A dark sense of humor can bring people together. If you are in a completely new group of people, make a dark joke, and only one person laughs, you two make a social connection. The way you both think and perceive situations is similar. As humans, we like to congregate with people who agree with and confirm the view we have of ourselves. "Joking and laughing together can establish or affirm intimacy" (Watson, 2011, p. 3). You typically wouldn't really feel like yourself in a group of people who put you down for having a dark sense of humor. For example, in terms of the doctor/patient relationship, a joke, "bridged the us-him divide. Here's a guy who has the same dark sense of humor as me. It made me think perhaps in a different time we could be friends" (Watson, 2011, p. 5).

Tasting the forbidden fruit[edit | edit source]

What is meant by this is that, through jokes, we can talk about subjects that are not accepted in day-to-day conversations. Jokes about sexual objects and actions, ethically tragic events, and morally problematic topics can be found in private conversations constantly. It can be fun to talk about what you shouldn't be. It is similar to how people want to do things more when they're specifically told not to do them. These dark and dirty topics are taboo, which make them so much more enticing to make a quip about. They may not have any other purpose than fun. Take the game in Figure 4., Cards Against Humanity, as an example. The entire point of the game is to see which of the players has the most vile, dirty, and dark sense of humor. This game is not meant to help people cope with tragedy, deal with anxiety, or feel superior to others. It is simply dark fun.

Quiz[edit | edit source]

1 What condition(s) must be met for a situation to be within the Incongruity Theory?

A situation must violate the norms
A situation must be benign
Both of the above

2 Which theory/example of humor does this exemplify? A person who you dislike slips on a banana peel and falls.


Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Overall, there is no one, concise definition of humor. Each person experiences humor in a variety of ways throughout his/her lifetime. Despite the differences in how we perceive humor, however, we all receive the same physical and psychological benefits of laughing at a good joke. In terms of why we enjoy dark, dirty, and obscure humor specifically, there are three main theories that explain our morally unjust fascination. The Superiority Theory explains that we use humor to build our own self-esteem by poking fun at others. Schadenfreude is found in this category, which is when we find enjoyment from other's misfortune because we envy them, think they deserve it, or think our 'group' is superior. The second theory is the Relief Theory, which ascertains that we use humor to relieve stress. With dark humor, we can cope with tragedies, our mortality, pain, and anxiety by detaching ourselves from the threat or to face the situation head on. The third main theory is the Incongruity Theory, which bases humor on the assumption that benign, norm-violating, unexpected situations are amusing to us. Another speculation is that using dark humor can strengthen or create social bonds between humans, as we like to surround ourselves with similarly-thinking people. Or, instead of all these psychological, philosophical reasons, we might just find simple pleasure out of joking about taboo, morally wrong, or completely odd topics. Humans are complex creatures, and we are far from knowing why we do a lot of the things we do. So, for now, just sit back, make that dark, dirty, or obscure joke, and have a good laugh!

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Berk, R. A. (2000). Does humor in course tests reduce anxiety and improve performance?. College teaching, 48(4), 151-158. doi: 10.1080/87567550009595834

Berk, R. A. (2001). The active ingredients in humor: Psychophysiological benefits and risks for older adults. Educational Gerontology, 27(3-4), 323-339. doi: 10.1080/036012701750195021

Emory Health Sciences. (2018). Schadenfreude sheds light on darker side of humanity: 'Dehumanization appears to be at the core of schadenfreude'. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 27, 2019 from

Humor. (2019). Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Retrieved from

Kimata, H. (2004). Effect of viewing a humorous vs. nonhumorous film on bronchial responsiveness in patients with bronchial asthma. Physiology & behavior, 81(4), 681-684.

Leach, C. W., Spears, R., Branscombe, N. R., & Doosje, B. (2003). Malicious pleasure: schadenfreude at the suffering of another group. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(5), 932-943. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.84.5.932.

Lund, D. A., Utz, R., Caserta, M. S., & De Vries, B. (2009). Humor, laughter, and happiness in the daily lives of recently bereaved spouses. OMEGA-Journal of Death and Dying, 58(2), 87-105. doi: 10.2190/OM.58.2.a

Manninen, S., Tuominen, L., Dunbar, R. I., Karjalainen, T., Hirvonen, J., Arponen, E., ... & Nummenmaa, L. (2017). Social laughter triggers endogenous opioid release in humans. Journal of Neuroscience, 37(25), 6125-6131. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0688-16.2017

McGraw, A. P., & Warren, C. (2010). Benign violations: Making immoral behavior funny. Psychological science, 21(8), 1141-1149. doi: 10.1177/0956797610376073

Overholser, J. C. (1992). Sense of humor when coping with life stress. Personality and individual differences, 13(7), 799-804.

Sobel, R. K. (2006). Does laughter make good medicine?. New England Journal of Medicine, 354(11), 1114-1115. doi: 10.1056/NEJMp058089

Watson, K. (2011). Gallows humor in medicine. Hastings Center Report, 41(5), 37-45. Retrieved from:

Wilkins, J., & Eisenbraun, A. J. (2009). Humor theories and the physiological benefits of laughter. Holistic nursing practice, 23(6), 349-354. doi: 10.1097/HNP.0b013e3181bf37ad

Wills, T. A. (1981). Downward comparison principles in social psychology. Psychological bulletin, 90(2), 245.

External links[edit | edit source]