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Monday, March 08, 2010

Why Do We Laugh?

APA In his review of the quirky French comedy Welcome to the Sticks (2008), Keith Oatley notes this film is "not of the kind in which one might laugh at someone slipping on a banana skin. Instead the director and actors have contrived a joining-in-together laughter, in which they take part." He goes on to comment on the film in the context of an early 20th century philosopher's take on why people laugh—that laughter is completely human, that we do not laugh unless we are a bit detached, and that laughter is social so we only laugh when we are in touch with others. How well do you believe these ideas hold true? How might you expand or edit these points? What other key principles would you add based on the latest science?

Read the Review
ReviewJust for a Laugh
By Keith Oatley
      PsycCRITIQUES, 2009 Vol 54(45)


Thomas J. Scheff

Laughter and Other Types of Catharsis?

In his review of a film comedy, Keith Oatley referred to three points that Bergson (1911) made about laughter. This is to elaborate on one of them, the need for detachment: “we do not laugh unless we are a bit detached.” This idea can be viewed as part of a larger one, the possibility of a combination of involvement and detachment, that in turn is part of an elaborated theory of catharsis that has never been tested.

Aristotle originated a theory of catharsis in the theatre. The purpose of tragedy, he wrote, was to “the purging of pity and terror.” This idea is currently in disrepute because Freud rejected it, even though his first book reported its success. Experimental psychologists also think they have disproved it, because they have shown that acting out anger usually doesn’t get rid of it. Currently it is the fashion to refer to catharsis as a simplistic hydraulic theory, as if there were only one theory rather than many (Scheff 1979; 2007).

However, Aristotle didn’t propose that audiences shout in anger or run away in fear. He was referring to the effect of simply watching a tragedy, somewhat like Wordsworth’s idea that poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility.

The crucial thing, according to theories of aesthetic distance, is that although the audience identifies with the players, and feels their emotions, at the same time realizes that they are safe in the theatre (Goddard 1951; Evans 1960). At this distance, moving rapidly in and out of their own feelings, emotions that might be painful if one was completely lost in them become pleasurable. This movement provides a feeling of control: if the pain gets too great, one can stop. In a tragedy, one can have a “good” rather than a bad cry, and experience good fear rather than the painful kind.

Phrased slightly differently, theatre must generate emotions in the audience, but not to the point that of getting lost in them (underdistanced). If it doesn’t generate emotions, it is overdistanced. The third way is being BOTH emotionally involved and detached at the same time, aesthetic distance. The audience is to identify with the characters to point of feeling their emotions, but at the same time remembering that they are NOT the characters.

My students experience roller coasters as pleasurable, but only if they are sure that the ride is safe. They allow themselves to feel fear because they are able, at the same time, to feel safe, rather than becoming completely caught up. Levine (1997) refers to this process as pendulating, moving very rapidly in and out of emotions that would otherwise be painful. We move so fast that we usually don’t realize it. These states can occur not only in the theatre but whenever we feel safe enough to replay intense emotional experiences, such as describing them to another person we trust, or, occasionally, reliving them alone.

In order to understand what is taking place in catharsis, emotions need to be defined. John Dewey (1894-5) proposed that felt emotions are certain bodily preparations to act that have been delayed. Since Dewey’s article dealt only with emotions in general, and not specific emotions, it had very little influence. It becomes relevant only if we apply it to specific emotions, like grief or shame, anger or fear. These emotions occur when the body is mobilized to act in certain ways, states of bodily arousal in order to complete certain acts. What are these acts, and how can they be completed?

For purpose of discussion, suppose that grief involves bodily preparation to cry. Sobbing with tears would require, at the least, muscular contractions in order to sob, activation of the tear glands, and some adrenaline to energize these preparations. The more rapidly these preparations are carried through, the less feeling of sadness. If one cried copiously and instantly, little sadness would be experienced. Sadness requires delay, just as sexual pleasure can be heightened by foreplay. Crying, under certain conditions discussed below, might be the orgasm for grief.

Embarrassment/shame provides another example. When I tell students to tell the class their most embarrassing moment, many of them are convulsed with laughter telling the story. Laughter seems to be the orgasm of shame. However, it’s often difficult to attain enough distance, especially if one was deeply humiliated. Many repetitions of just talk about the incident may be needed before one can find humor in it.

It also needs to be said that just as there is a good cry and a bad one, there is also a good laugh and a bad one. A good laugh turns out to be when one is laughing at one’s self (“Silly me”) or the universe, but not at other people. Laughing at others, as Billig has pointed out (2005) usually is ridicule, driven by anger: no help to either party. There is also faked laughing, which doesn’t engage any part of the cathartic system, but is more like a voluntary speech act.

Aesthetic distance is experiencing strong emotions in a safe environment: theatre, film, books, songs, or telling one’s experience to an empathic person, or even to one’s self. I once had an intense fear experience in this mode. After an excruciatingly dangerous moment, when I was safe, I realized that I was still tensed up because of the danger I had encountered. Not knowing what to do, I began repeating aloud the phrase “I am afraid.” After many repetitions my body took over, shaking and sweating til my clothes were drenched. It was not painful, and I felt completely relaxed when it was over. Shaking and sweating seems to be the orgasm of fear arousal.

Like many people, when angry I may lash out. But I have had several anger experiences of a quite different kind. I told the culprit “I am angry at you because…..” in an ordinary voice. Since this approach is so undramatic, I have had to repeat my complaint several times. Then two things happened: the other person started apologizing, and I felt hot. I realized that it was not the room that had gotten warm, but my body. Catharsis in this case doesn’t involve the acting out of anger, the mistake of the systematic studies of anger “catharsis.” It is rather an internal process: heat metabolizes the adrenaline for bodily preparation to fight. Body heat signals the internal orgasm of anger.

These comments on catharsis were brief. For further discussion, see my Catharsis and Other Heresies (2007), or my video edu-tainment on emotions, backed up by two Swedish rock stars (Scheff 2009).


Bergson, H. (1911). Laughter: An essay on the meaning of the comic C. Brereton.
Billig, M. (2005). Laughter and ridicule: Towards a social critique of humor. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Dewey, John. 1894 and 1895. The Theory of Emotion. Psychological Review 1, 553-569, and II, (2), (1895): 13-32.
Goddard, Harold. 1951. The Meaning of Shakespeare. Chicago; U. of Chicago Press.
Levine, Peter A. 1997. Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books
Oatley, Keith. 2009. PsychCritiques Nov. 11.
Scheff, Thomas. 1979. Catharsis in Healing, Ritual, and Drama. Berkeley: U. of California Press. Re-issued in 2001 by iUniverse.
______________2007. Catharsis and Other Heresies: A Theory of Emotion. Journal of Social, Evolutionary and Cultural Psychology 1 (3), 98-113.

______________ 2009. Social Science of Emotions.

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Editor of PsycCRITIQUES

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College of Medicine,
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