Benign Violations: Making Immoral Behavior Funny
9 Pages Posted: 19 Apr 2010 Last revised: 6 Mar 2012
Date Written: April 18, 2010
Humor is an important, ubiquitous phenomenon; however, seemingly disparate conditions seem to facilitate humor. We integrate these conditions by suggesting that laughter and amusement result from violations that are simultaneously seen as benign. We investigate three conditions that make violations benign and thus amusing: 1) the presence of an alternative norm suggesting the situation is acceptable, 2) weak commitment to a violated norm, and 3) psychological distance from the violation. We test the benign violation hypothesis in the domain of moral psychology, which documents a strong association between moral violations and negative emotions, particularly disgust. Five experimental studies show that benign moral violations also tend to elicit laughter and amusement. Furthermore, seeing a violation as both wrong and not wrong mediates behavioral displays of amusement. Our account is consistent with evolutionary accounts of laughter, explains humor across many domains, and suggests humor can accompany negative emotion.
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