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Laughter, Humor, and Status

Feelings of amusement are tied to vulnerability. But how is that measured?

Key points

  • Laughter and humor are inexorably tied to vulnerability, but when explaining them, it is easier to employ a term we use as its measure: status.
  • It is so critical to our survival and reproductive success, we are conditioned to be highly sensitive to any changes in our status relationships.
  • While many factors influence its emergence and intensity, our laughter is preceded by some perceived shift in our status relative to others.

In my first post, I argued that laughter evolved as a way of reminding others of shared vulnerabilities. I went on to define vulnerability and suggested that it might be broadly subdivided into physical, emotional, cognitive, and social forms, albeit with much intermingling and overlap. Further, I suggested that we invariably recognize differing degrees of vulnerability. We become aware of traits we might consider just barely distinguishable from normal, and those that we think of as serious deficiencies, and of course those lying somewhere in between.

Unfortunately, the word vulnerability isn’t very nuanced, and doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue either. So, in this post I’d like to discuss a more versatile, and more familiar, term for handling this notion as it relates to laughter and humor. It is the one we use as a measure of vulnerability: status.

Source: Ingo Joseph/Pexels
Source: Ingo Joseph/Pexels

Today, when we consider status, we tend to think of social status. How much income do individuals earn or the value of the property they own? How much influence, positive or negative, do they have over others’ lives? How attractive are they to potential mates? How trustworthy are they? How many close friends do they possess and what social rank do they possess? And so on. Another type of status we sometimes reflect on relates to physical condition. Someone’s health status is variously described as excellent, or good, or poor, or serious, or critical.

When we refer to status, we are doing little more than measuring one’s current degree of vulnerability. The less vulnerable they are, the higher their status. The more vulnerable they are, the lower their status. These tend to be vulnerabilities we all share. The ones we, and our evolutionary precursors, have been struggling with for millions of years: susceptibility to hunger, thirst, loss of shelter, loss of companionship, loss of mobility, lack of problem-solving abilities, the absence of mating partners, inadequate resourcing for offspring, poor defense from rivals, and so on. Low-status individuals risk falling short of the basic requirements for reaching adulthood and propelling their genes into the distant future. High-status individuals are those least affected by potential obstacles in their physical and social environment, whether those are due to random chance or intentional sabotage.

Photo by Engin Akyurt/Pexels
Source: Photo by Engin Akyurt/Pexels

Vulnerability, by definition, so influences our success we are programmed, genetically and culturally, to be keenly sensitive to even slight changes in status, both our own and others’. Our attention keys in on any minor deviation from the status quo, however we might define that state of affairs. If we have a bad hair day, our status drops a bit relative to our coworkers. Should we miss a belt loop, forget someone’s name, become startled by something innocuous, or display any of a billion other reminders of our shortcomings, our status is slightly diminished, even if only for a few seconds. This is why our species tries so desperately to avoid the loss of status, or even its social indicators.

The same feeling arises when we observe someone else’s status rise a little. They share a clever solution to a problem, or have just the right comeback to an insult, or hit a game-winning home run, and our status relationship, the status quo, is altered. Someone else’s up is effectively our down, just as our up is their down. Thus, a reminder of mutual vulnerability, aka laughter, would be useful if any of four conditions materialize: our status is raised, or lowered, or someone else’s is raised, or lowered. There are countless factors that can suppress, bolster, or delay our laugh response, and I will cover these in future posts, but for the moment simply understand that laughter requires a perceived gain or loss of status, which I’ll use as shorthand for vulnerability.

In my next post, I’ll present a detailed analysis of the YouTube video I recommended for your “homework” assignment two weeks ago—Frank Olivier on The Tonight Show. Check it out and see if you can find an instance of audience laughter that does not originate with a status shift. We can compare notes about Olivier’s performance in a couple weeks.

© John Charles Simon.