Benign Violation Theory

What makes something funny? Benign Violation Theory may help writers understand what makes things amusing.

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For thousands of years, humanity has pondered what it is that actually makes people laugh. Although there are many styles of humour, no consensus has ever fully been reached regarding the discovery of some magic formula. This shouldn’t come as a surprise—after all, humour, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

However, in an effort to uncover the art of being funny, a theory has emerged which may go some way to identifying the key ingredients of humour. Behavioural scientists Peter McGraw and Caleb Warren proposed the Benign Violation Theory back in 2010 and it has helped to establish a science of humour.

In their book The Humor Code: The Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, McGraw and Warren argue there are three main conditions which can ‘trigger’ laughter in people:

  1. A situation is a violation;
  2. The situation is benign;
  3. Both perceptions occur simultaneously.

This may sound complicated, but in the book they give a simple explanation. Imagine you’re play-fighting with someone and you start to tickle them—this can cause that person to laugh. This is a benign violation because no genuine harm will befall the other person if they are tickled—you might be violating their personal space, but there is no serious physical threat you are subjecting them to. The threat tickling poses to is insignificant.

If you apply this idea to humour in works of fiction, this theory suggests we only laugh if we know the consequences of what we find funny are trivial. In a nutshell, this is why slapstick humour has such lasting appeal—we know full well that knocking someone over the head with a frying pan may give someone brain damage, but when the Three Stooges do it we laugh because cartoon violence is a ‘benign violation’ and we know Moe, Larry, and Curly are only fictional characters. Therefore, they feel no pain.

The use of puns and innuendo are also benign violations as they subvert the everyday language we are used to hearing. Similarly, if social norms are challenged, or we witness out-of-the-ordinary situations, farcical misunderstandings, or rude jokes, these are also benign violations because the threat they pose to us is mild. We laugh because it flies in the face of our expectations.

Benign Violation Theory suggests we weigh up humour by how harmless it is—the more innocuous we find it, the more likely we are to laugh. This might explain why black comedy or transgressive humour has niche appeal—it requires a massive suspension of what one considers to be benign. In the end, McGraw and Warren’s ideas help us understand why some people find things funny, and others don’t.

Take a look at Monty Python’s Life of Brian, for instance—most people today regard that film as an iconoclastic satire of idol worship and religious conformity. Those who laugh at it enjoy these ideals being challenged and see no harm in being amused by it. Those from more religious backgrounds, however, see it not as a benign violation at all, but as a serious attack on their beliefs. What is seen as benign, therefore, is a matter of personal opinion. This is why one person’s idea of humour can diverge quite extremely from another’s.

While it may be true that being naturally funny is a gift, there is no harm in learning about theories of humour to apply some rigour to your thought processes and sense-check your comic writing skills. But remember, what each individual considers funny is a very personal thing, so the best rule to follow is to write about what amuses you most. If you find it adheres to McGraw and Warren’s Benign Violation Theory, then more power to you. Let a love of humour be your guide, no matter what the science suggests.

Humorous fiction writer, poet and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.

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