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Laughter’s Essential Ingredient

An awareness of our shared vulnerability is at the heart of laughter.

Key points

  • Recent investigations into the importance of vulnerability lend support to the conclusions of the Mutual Vulnerability Theory of Laughter.
  • Variations in our individual laugh response depend, in part, on whether we classify traits as being vulnerabilities or deficiencies.
  • A 2010 TED talk by Dr. Brené Brown isn’t simply a presentation of her research, but also a demonstration of humor and laughter’s social utility.
Anete Lusina/Pexels
Source: Anete Lusina/Pexels

It’s always a good sign when a critical element of understanding in one realm of human behavior also reveals itself in another. Such is the case for vulnerability. It has recently, thanks in no small part to the research and writings of Dr. Brené Brown, become a much-appreciated facet of the human condition. In her hugely popular 2010 TED Talk, Brown spoke of vulnerability as a principal constituent of our feelings of shame and disconnection, but equally so of our sense of happiness and belonging. The Mutual Vulnerability Theory I developed a decade and a half earlier reveals why this apparent contradiction really isn’t.

In my first post, I wrote that “there is no understanding laughter without first understanding vulnerability.” Here I will go into greater detail, for it’s the highlighting of vulnerability—through word, action, or appearance—that precedes virtually every sensation of amusement. I shall cite a section in Chapter Three of my book, Why We Laugh: A New Understanding.

Defining Vulnerability

The concept of vulnerability is central to a comprehensive understanding of why we laugh. The term vulnerability usually refers to the susceptibility of being wounded or attacked, not just by physical means, but also by criticism, blackmail, and other indirect assaults. In its broadest sense, we can think of vulnerability as something inherent to every object or process through which an identifiable objective is sought. We design buildings, for example, to hold a specific shape, to maintain structural integrity, yet they’re still vulnerable to large earthquakes.

All living things have a biological objective—to advance their genetic code into the future—but they also have inherent limitations. They require resources and environmental conditions without which their maintenance and reproduction are imperiled. Because individuals invariably lack complete control and total certainty in pursuit of their objectives, each may be said to possess some degree of vulnerability. Gamma radiation, fire, chemical poisons, lack of water, loss of air pressure, depredation, even exposure to chance events such as meteorite bombardment—every living being is vulnerable to some external destructive force.

There are internal threats as well. Consider the instructional code by which life processes are regulated—DNA. Genetic mutations can doom an organism from the moment of conception. Furthermore, an organism’s behavioral repertoire (made possible by the genes and then modified by the capacity to learn) is also subject to malfunction. Living things can make errors both when interpreting signals from their environment and when responding to them. Vulnerability is a part of any system. It exists on many levels, and the more complex the system, the greater the potential susceptibility.

Because vulnerability is so universal, we have a tendency to place it in the background until something brings it to our attention. We recognize a condition of normalcy. We allow for the existence of limitations without necessarily thinking of them as vulnerabilities. We would, for example, consider a tall, straight-trunk, vibrant pine tree as normal, even though it is vulnerable to fire, tornadoes, insects, and so on. Until such threats are in some way highlighted or emphasized, we tend to ignore inherent vulnerabilities and think of the tree as being unremarkable—its condition as being normal. The same is true of other systems, both living and nonliving, including human beings.

While success for a biological entity is ultimately measured in terms of survival and reproduction (as reflected in the traditional definition of vulnerability), for beings as complex as we are, the concept of vulnerabilities also applies to any physical or behavioral attributes that affect the totality of our lives: our work, play, family ties, social standing, and so forth. Furthermore, vulnerability is never unequivocal. It can’t be reduced to a single, objectively determined or, for that matter, easily quantifiable condition or action. Rather, it refers to a whole range of limitations from, at one end of the spectrum, things that make success only slightly less probable than “normal” to—but not including—those which represent an apparent deficiency.

Beyond Vulnerability

Deficient is not an attractive adjective, especially when applied to humans, but then neither are the alternatives. Faulty, lacking, flawed, and defective are other equally unappetizing choices. The point is that we are, at times, cognizant of traits and tendencies within ourselves and others that can significantly undermine the ability to reach one’s goals, however those goals might be defined. They exceed what we typically regard as mere vulnerabilities. Deficiencies make the achievement of success somewhere between improbable and impossible.

For the purposes of explaining laughter, then, we should think of vulnerability as a trait (a physical characteristic, behavior, or combination thereof), or the absence of a trait (e.g., empathy), that makes success less probable than normal, but not improbable. Vulnerability, like beauty, requires at least some subjective evaluation and how we distinguish between normality, vulnerability, and deficiency plays a large part in determining what we think of as funny.

Laughter (and Humor) in Action

The recognition, sharing, and accommodation of vulnerability is part and parcel of both our insecurity and our ability to connect with others. Dr. Brown’s TED Talk is worth viewing on two levels. First, it captures the critical importance of this feeling in our daily lives. And second, references to her own shortcomings throughout her presentation demonstrate the link between vulnerability and 29 instances of sympathetic, lifting laughter offered by her audience. It is Brown’s candor and “courage” that opens her listeners up and brings them into her story. They connect with her because they share similar insecurities and imperfections.

That’s what laughter communicates.

© John Charles Simon


Simon, J. C. (2008). Why We Laugh: A New Understanding. Starbrook Publishing.