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Why Our Emotional Glitches Often Generate Amusement

Understanding how atypical emotional responses can foster laughter.

Key points

  • Minor threats to survival and reproduction can stimulate laughter; so too can emotional missteps that might lead to adverse physical outcomes.
  • Desire, anger, fear, joy, disgust, sorrow, jealousy, and other emotions can sometimes be misplaced or of the wrong intensity.
  • The Mutual Vulnerability Theory of Laughter helps explain why such emotional miscalculations can often be a source of humor.
 Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
Source: Source: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

If laughter evolved as a means of expressing mutual vulnerability, then we should find it resulting from all sorts of shortcomings. Some of these will be physical failings, but they will also include emotional traits that are perceived, in some way, as inappropriate. Emotions can be misapplied, too mild, or too intense for the situation, putting our bodies or reproductive potential at risk. As such, they may become fair game for both laughter and humor.

Here I provide an excerpt from my book, Why We Laugh: A New Understanding, as an introduction to the concept of emotional vulnerability.

A living being’s first line of defense against pre-reproductive death resides in its inclination to act in ways that reduce that likelihood. Such deliberate actions can be considered, in their most basic form, the result of “if-then” statements formulated and then solved by the life form.

For the simplest organisms, these if-then statements are coded directly into the genetic materials and acted upon by the other components of the cytoplasm, cell membranes, and structures responsible for mobility. If, for instance, the water is too hot, then move. If in the proximity of prey, then ingest it. In this sense, every organism can be thought of as having emotions, a term that alternately refers to the “drivers” of biological action as well as the observable changes in physiology or behavior that signal their presence (Alexander, 1989, Godkewitsch, 1972).

Beyond unicellular life, emotions take on a more familiar form. Multicellular organisms coordinate the activities of their various constituents using an inter-cellular communication system. Because this system is created, though not exclusively regulated, by an individual’s genetic makeup, it has a reciprocal evolutionary relationship with the physical self. That is, the best survivors are those who can sense relevant environmental components (including other life forms) and then react in such a way as to make beneficial things seem attractive, dangerous things seem repulsive, and neutral things seem as neither (Owings, 1998). What we refer to as feelings are physiological changes that result from conscious or subconscious associations between certain environmental signals and an individual’s genetically- or culturally-determined inventory of things that are net-positive, net-negative, or neutral with respect to some given objective.

In the so-called “higher” animals (including humans), feelings of attraction and repulsion are found in every shade of gray with respect to both intensity and duration. Certain motivations tend to be considered drives when they refer to those things having a direct, genetically determined association with physical maintenance (hunger, thirst, sex, etc.). Some researchers consider the term emotion as more accurately describing strong but relatively brief motivational states—ones having a duration of a few seconds, and directing actions with less direct physical consequences (e.g., excitement, fear, revulsion, jealousy, etc.; Eckman, 1994). The longer-lasting, usually less intense emotional states, or moods (e.g., happiness, sadness, and anxiety), provide a platform on which our more short-term emotions work. Emotions and moods, in turn, work within the larger context of our affective style or personality. No matter their intensity or duration, the internal biochemical response system that motivates or coordinates our body’s activity is essential to our physical survival and reproduction.

Given the range of situations humans must contend with throughout life, it is no surprise that our emotional subsystems have been refined to a level unmatched by any other in the animal kingdom. Still, most individuals are endowed with emotions that work in fundamentally the same way. The feelings we refer to as fear, sorrow, joy, desire, loyalty, love, anger, jealousy, disgust, and embarrassment are found in all healthy adults regardless of cultural background. We’re attracted to those who share resources, repelled by foul-smelling food, fearful of dangerous animals, and bolstered more by victory than defeat. We share a system of emotions because we share a genetic heritage that has evolved to perceive and respond to the same basic stimuli.

Universality doesn’t necessarily mean consistency, however. Individuals vary in the degree, timing, threshold of onset, and effectiveness of their emotions. We all hope to experience the most appropriate emotions, at the most appropriate times, and then modulate them to a proper intensity and duration. But this is often not the case. Because we struggle with such tasks throughout our lives, we can be said to have emotional vulnerability.

How are such vulnerabilities revealed? A short bout of unwarranted paranoia or frustration, a slightly irrational repulsive reaction, an inappropriate or excessively strong desire, an unjustifiably bubbly mood—these are just a few examples of emotional short-circuits, overplays, and misapplications that depict an inherently vulnerable control system. The absence of motivation can be thought of in the same way. Lethargy and mild depression, for example, can be seen as traits that make reaching our goals less probable.

Any time the emotional control system responds inappropriately, and where these shortcomings don’t seriously threaten our ability to succeed, we recognize emotional vulnerabilities. When we experience such failings in others, and ourselves, laughter says, “You know, I think we’ve both fallen prey to that sort of miscalculation.”

This video highlights emotional reactions that many would interpret as being somewhat stronger than “normal”, and thus deserving of some sympathetic, “Lifting Laughter.” See if you agree with the audience.

© John Charles Simon


Alexander, R. D. 1989. Evolution of the Human Psyche. In. Mellars, P. and Stringer, C. (Eds.), The Human Revolution: Behavioral and Biological Perspectives on the Origins of Modern Humans. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP.

Eckman, P. 1994. All Emotions are Basic. In Eckman, P. and Davidson, R. J. (Eds.), The Nature of Emotion: Fundamental Questions. New York: Oxford UP.

Godkewitsch, M. 1972. The Relationship Between Arousal Potential and Funniness of Jokes. In. Goldstein, J. H. and McGhee, P. E. (Eds.), The Psychology of Humor: Theoretical Perspectives and Empirical Issues. New York: Academic Press.

Owings, D. H. and Morton, E. S. 1998. Animal Vocal Communication: A New Approach. Cambridge, England: Cambridge UP.

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