Humor is closely related to play; indeed, it can be viewed as a form of “mental play.” When we engage in humor, we are playing with words and ideas. Compared with other forms of play, however, humor involves a more deliberate distortion of reality. For example, a child engaging in “serious” make-believe play might dress up in her mother’s high-heeled shoes and evening gown and apply lipstick in a way that closely imitates adult behavior. On the other hand, in humorous play, the child might put the dress on backward, wear the shoes on her hands, or use the lipstick to give herself a clown face, in order to create a surprising effect and elicit laughter in others. This distortion of reality is an aspect of incongruity, which is a defining characteristic of humor. In general, incongruity refers to a discrepancy between what is normally expected and what is actually experienced.
To recognize and enjoy humorous incongruity, children must first have an understanding of what is “normal” or expected. The development of humor through childhood therefore parallels the increasing complexity of cognitive structures and reflects an increasing sophistication in the detection of incongruity. Laughter first appears in infants about 4 months of age. During the first 2 years of life, much of children’s humor focuses on observing and performing various forms of visual and behavioral incongruity, such as peek-a-boo, tickling, and chasing games. Children at this age also laugh at incongruous actions of people, animals, or objects, such as exaggerated facial or vocal expressions or seeing a dog wearing a hat. Later, as children begin to develop language skills, they start to laugh at incongruous uses of language, such as sound play (e.g., repeating nonsense rhyming sounds) and word play (e.g., deliberately calling a person or object by the wrong name).
By the age of 4, children typically begin to enjoy semantic incongruity, which is often expressed in the form of riddles. As they reach elementary school age, their humor involves conceptual incongruity, such as telling jokes that incorporate multiple meanings. In adolescence, their increased capacities for abstract thinking and formal logic are reflected in even more sophisticated forms of humor such as satire and irony. Many researchers believe that, like play in general, humor serves an important function of enhancing cognitive and linguistic development by enabling the child to practice and consolidate newly acquired skills.
Humor also has important social functions. It is a beneficial way of sharing fun and forming bonds among friends. However, it can also be used in aggressive ways (e.g., through teasing and “put-down” humor). Humor is often a way of defining and reinforcing group norms by communicating what is acceptable and what is unacceptable, and making fun of those who are different. Children with a strong sense of humor often tend to be more aggressive and dominant than their less humorous peers. At the same time, they also tend to be more creative, verbally fluent, self-confident, extraverted, and socially competent. Thus, a sense of humor can be channeled toward either socially facilitative or aggressive ends.
Humor is also an important way of coping with anxiety and stress. By laughing and joking about something that is potentially threatening, one gains a sense of mastery over it. Young children’s enjoyment of “bathroom” humor and adolescents’ sexual jokes may be seen as ways of coping with anxieties and insecurities relating to bodily functions and sexual development. Throughout our lives, humor continues to be an important mechanism for coping with stress and adversity. Thus, despite its “frivolous” appearance, humor plays an important role in our cognitive, social, and emotional functioning.
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- Klein, J. (Ed.). (2003). Humor in children’s lives: A guidebook for practitioners. Westport, CT: Praeger.
- Lefcourt, M. (2001). Humor: The psychology of living buoyantly. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum.
- Roeckelein, E. (2002). The psychology of humor: A reference guide and annotated bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
- Ruch, W. (Ed.). (1998). The sense of humor: Explorations of a personality characteristic. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.