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Your Personal History Shines Through Your Sense of Humor

What you find (or fail to find) amusing depends a lot on your past experiences.

Key points

  • If the Mutual Vulnerability Theory of Laughter is correct, it would explain why our personal history and knowledge impacts our laugh response.
  • How we understand our own and others’ objectives, and how various shortcomings might affect their attainment, depends heavily on experience.
  • This would explain why certain people “get” jokes that others do not. To be able to recognize certain vulnerabilities requires special knowledge.

In prior posts, I discussed individual-level variables such as age and personality, and how the Mutual Vulnerability Theory of Laughter helps shed light on their influence on our laugh response. Here, I’d like to report on another distinctive attribute that also affects what we will, and won’t, find amusing.

Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
Source: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

How Knowledge and Personal Experience Shape our Laugh Response

We are each products not only of our genetic heritage, but also of various other factors such as family size, social structure, access to resources, and early moral lessons. Our personalities are shaped by a cornucopia of causes and consequences, many of which we functionally “inherit” from our parents, other family caregivers, and the social circumstances into which we are born.

There are, as well, various events that help shape us as individuals, ones that may change our outlook or understanding of the world, but nevertheless leave our core nature relatively unchanged. Emotional experiences, the advice of mentors, information we acquire by trial-and-error, and the outcomes of social alliances, both good and ill, will all affect how we see our current situation and work to overcome obstacles. They help shape our tendencies to form friendships, to be generous, tolerant, suspicious, emotionally distant, and so on. Our personal histories mold our sense of what is normal and what is not, what constitutes vulnerability, and what might be a deficiency by helping to define what is and is not important, and what does and does not lead to success, however it might be defined.

The information we have stored in our memories—our knowledge base—will invariably affect what we define as vulnerability, the key to understanding why we laugh.

Consider what is commonly referred to as an “inside joke.” Those on the “inside” have the prerequisite knowledge needed to “get” the humor, to recognize some vulnerability, some shift in status; those who are not privy to that knowledge won't get it. This accretion of information usually happens as individuals grow from children to adults and gain greater insight into the workings of their world. But it also occurs, in a more focused way, as they gain specific understanding through formal training.

Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels
Source: Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels

An experienced home builder, for example, might look at architectural blueprints and see a minor design flaw, one that hints at the architect’s inexperience (some cognitive vulnerability) and might react with sympathetic laughter. However, it required the special knowledge of home design to recognize the mistake in the first place. A layperson, perhaps even a less experienced builder, would likely not have recognized it. Similarly, the same builder might perceive a different design flaw as hazardous (a sign of deficiency) and find nothing amusing about it, whereas an inexperienced builder might interpret the same mistake as trivial and laughable. Again, knowledge affects what is perceived as vulnerability and what is not.

A Look Inside the Inside Joke

The same principle holds true in almost every instance of laughter, most especially in the cognitive and social forms. Certain shortcomings will be detected only if the prerequisite knowledge is already available. Thus, some humor will be “appreciated” by art historians but not doctors, by wait staff and not mechanics, by Buddhists and not Christians, and by Native Alaskans and not Pacific Islanders.

The reverse, of course, would also be true. Pertinent information relating to a given vulnerability might be restricted to a certain social club, a particular circle of friends, a single family group, or even one lone person...the ultimate inside joke. A simple word, sound, or gesture—something entirely meaning-less to most—might bring laughter to those few who can connect it to the appropriate reference, whether it be a specific television comedy routine, a past faux pas, a certain high school prank, or yesterday’s little white lie. They understand the vulnerability and who is displaying it. They comprehend how a certain action or situation stands outside the norm and yet still falls short of being a deficiency. In other words, they get it.

Tarikul Raana/Pexels
Tarikul Raana/Pexels

As we go through life and change, we perceive things that we had not before, or think of them in a different way. This is part of the process of going from child to adult, but even as adults we continue to change our perspective as we broaden our understanding. A stumbling, somewhat inebriated party goer might be viewed as comical to many—perhaps even as she reaches for her car keys—but not to someone who has experienced the loss of a child to a drunk driver. A broken-down, backfiring car is considered by its self-conscious owner as a symbol of his poverty but, after a successful first date with an understanding and light-hearted love interest, it becomes a source of levity and good-natured fun.

Just as a diminishing interpersonal relationship allows us to “distance” ourselves from those whose deficiencies or vulnerabilities are being highlighted, certain information can allow us to distance ourselves from the consequences of those traits. When, for example, a mother witnesses her seven-year-old child fall from his bicycle, her initial reaction may be one of concern. Later, after confirming he is not badly injured or emotionally traumatized, she would realize that the fall was, in fact, not truly threatening. She might recount the incident a few hours later to the child, to her spouse, or to another mother with great amusement. Information has changed the way in which she categorizes the same event—first as a possible sign of deficiency but then later as an inconsequential vulnerability.

When it comes to what we will and won’t find amusing, as with most things in life, experience matters.

© John Charles Simon