Few things are as funny as what we might call crude humor. It’s one of the first principles that entertains us as infants and children, when bodily functions are at their most hilarious. But really, bodily functions never stop being funny throughout our lives. That’s because they function on a principle called benign moral violations, which was proposed in a 2010 paper “Benign Violations: Making Immoral Behavior Funny” by Peter McGraw at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Humor is mostly subjective, and we can see this to be partially true as humor does not tend to translate across cultural lines. For instance, there are no comedy movies that have consistently struck gold in international box offices because humor is rooted in language and cultural and contextual norms. However, action and adventure movies routinely break box office records because there’s no cultural translation required for an explosion or flying car.
We can see that humor is somewhat unreliable in how it translates across people, and you can’t assume that, just because you find something funny, other people will even smile. Understandably, this makes it difficult to be charming and likable because however funny one person might find you, you could very well be insulting and nonsensical to another.
However, according to McGraw, there is one approach to humor that is fairly universal and consistent. Regardless of whom you’re with, the culture you’re in, or the social context you find yourself in, you can always draw on the power of the benign moral violation.
Researchers asked participants about hypothetical situations that breached a widely recognized social norm, such as farting in public or spilling a drink all over your supervisor. The researchers only asked two questions:
- Was the behavior immoral or wrong to some degree?
- Was it funny?
Volunteers read pairs of situations—for example, one where the food compant Jimmy Dean hired a rabbi as a spokesman for its new line of pork products, and one where Jimmy Dean hired a farmer as spokesman for its new line of pork products. The situation with a moral violation—having a rabbi promote pork—was both more likely to be seen as wrong and more likely to make the reader laugh.
The other part of the study tested whether benign appraisals of a moral violation made it funnier. For one experiment, participants read a scenario in which either a church or a credit union raffles off an SUV to attract new members. The participants were disgusted when the church attracted members with a raffle, but not the credit union. But whether they were amused by the church depended in part on whether they went to church themselves; non-churchgoers were more likely to think that was funny. The researchers think this is because the non-churchgoers are “not particularly committed to the sanctity of churches,” says McGraw—so for them, the moral violation seems benign.
“We laugh when Moe hits Larry because we know that Larry’s not really being hurt,” says McGraw, referring to humorous slapstick. “It’s a violation of social norms. You don’t hit people, especially a friend. But it’s okay because it’s not real.” He points out a recent example, an Internet video of a chainsmoking Indonesian toddler. “When I was first told about that, I laughed, because it seems unreal—what parent would let their kids smoke cigarettes? The fact that the situation seemed unbelievable made it benign. Then when I saw the video of this kid smoking, it was no longer possible to laugh about it.”
There was a very high correlation between the two—the more immoral the behavior, the funnier it was rated. But that was only up to a certain point.
If the behavior was deemed too immoral, then it quickly became unfunny and verged into either cruel or simply distasteful territory—for instance, someone who spilled a drink on their supervisor only to get fired for it because they also ruined thousands of dollars’ worth of laptops that they were carrying at the time. It might be a sort of wrongness, but it’s simply too consequential to laugh at.
Thus, the researchers coined the term benign moral violation—the act needs to be immoral but in a way that appears harmless or distant and has no negative repercussions. To be truly benign, the violation should be purely amusing, inoffensive, and psychologically distant, which means it doesn’t appear real or tangible. An envelope needs to be pushed, but never can it go too far.
We can laugh at others, but not if they are really suffering. Another way to think of it is that we don’t actually wish ill of others, but we rather enjoy seeing the vulnerability in others and perhaps enjoy taking them down a peg. It is a little bit reminiscent of the pratfall effect, where positive feelings result from objectively negative occurrences.
Other examples of benign moral violations include the following:
- Someone falling over and their pants coming off in the process.
- A ball hitting someone in the crotch.
- Making a gaffe when meeting someone famous or important.
- Your boss spilling water on his pants, making it look like he urinated in them.
These are all a bit crass and contain a bit of wrongness but are ultimately harmless because nothing is hurt besides people’s sense of pride. At its heart, it is quite clean humor, so it doesn’t turn anyone off. We can imagine both a conservative grandparent and rebellious teenager laughing at it; it can belong in a violent blockbuster movie as comic relief or in a child’s movie also as comic relief.
Overall, this study tells us that there is a thin line we must adhere to with humor. On the one hand, we shouldn’t be too afraid of going there when talking to other people. What we might imagine to be inappropriate might actually be what spurs laughter and builds rapport. On the other hand, your moral violation can’t be too great of a violation, otherwise people will be supremely uncomfortable and even emotionally affected. It’s quite a tightrope to walk. Unfortunately, if you don’t practice this, it’s too easy to make the wrong call.
But it must be benign and harmless. However, if it hits too close to home and becomes serious, then it’s not benign and just becomes plain offensive. The tricky part is to know just how far you can push the envelope. But the moral violation can’t be too benign, otherwise it will be boring and decidedly not funny.
Make people laugh with the violation but keep them comfortable because it’s benign: it’s not as easy as it seems because everyone’s definition and standard of both parts of the equation are different.
The benign moral violation is something you might recognize to be quite similar to schadenfreude, which we mentioned earlier in the context of the superiority theory of humor. We like to be reminded of our own superiority, but it takes a wrong turn if there is serious, real harm.
In fact, the benign moral violation ends up having similarities with the other two theories on humor as well. The theory of incongruity functions on an expectation that is subverted at the last moment, and that happens because we see a moral violation, which in itself is incongruous, and then it ends up being benign, which is incongruous again from what came before. The theory of relief functions on humor being a release of tension, and of course, we are relieved if the violation is benign.
The underlying point is it’s not negative to talk about negative things. You can bring up negative topics, moral violations, or whatnot without turning your conversation sour. You might even be seen as hilarious. There’s a line, but it might not be as thin as you think it is. Take a few risks and don’t feel the need to filter yourself so much; you’re missing out on potential goldmines for humor. And for what—to avoid judgment?
This is also similar to the advice in an earlier chapter to act the part of a friend and thus be welcomed as one. Friends laugh at each other and make off-color, silly, infantile jokes; this is just another dimension of not treating someone like a stranger and thus setting the tone for likability and friendship. We always have the power to set that tone, but we instead passively let it happen to us.
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