60-Second Science

Low-Level Moral Transgressions Make Us Laugh

People laugh at situations involving a moral violation, if the situation is minor or unconnected to the listener. Molly Webster reports

Everyone from Freud to Tina Fey has tried to understand why some things are funny. Now, new research concludes that one key to comedy is for a situation to violate a moral standard, but in a gentle way.

Researchers presented volunteers with a number of different scenarios. For example, the Jimmy Dean sausage company needs a spokesman for its new line of pork products, so they hire Rabbi Shlomo Rosenfield. Or, so they hire a farmer. Participants were more likely to find the rabbi scenario wrong, but they were also more likely to think it was funny.

The researchers found that participants would laugh at situations with moral violations if, for example, they felt that situation was hypothetical, harmless or involved people unconnected to the listener. The study appears in the journal Psychological Science. [A. Peter McGraw and Caleb Warren,]

The finding deviates from previously published psychology studies which equate moral violation solely with disgust. It also proves that Mel Brooks was onto something when he said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall down an open sewer and die.”

—Molly Webster

[The above text is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

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