On Laughter and Pain

When we see someone slip on a banana peel or trip over her two left feet, we laugh instinctively because it is unexpected and therefore funny. The laughter is generally well accepted as it is the quickest way for the clumsy girl to get over the embarrassment of having fallen in public. She will most probably join the throe of giggles and laugh along with her spectators, communicating that it is “No big deal”. But what happens when the fall is so great that some sort of injury occurs? Do we laugh at the misfortune or do we lean towards sympathy instead?

The genesis for this post came from this video clip where a girl was catapulting watermelons and one rebounded, hit her squarely in the face then shattered into pieces. I did not find the situation at all humorous. Ironic, yes – but it wasn’t the sort of irony that would make me burst out laughing for the simple fact that I couldn’t stop cringing. Unlike watching someone get face-blasted in a film, the pain this girl experienced was real. Yet, when I glanced through the first page of comments, majority of the viewers found the clip inexplicably hilarious. Some of the comments were downright sexist and brusque, saying: “That bitch deserved it”, when “the bitch” in question hadn’t done anything remotely deserving of a watermelon head shot.

I couldn’t understand why certain people find such an expressed delight in another’s pain. So, I browsed around the internet, hoping to stumble upon an explanation.

Unlike instances where the subject of the pain somehow deserved the outcome, the case in point did nothing to warrant the acute payoff.

Either my Google-fu wasn’t strong enough, or there simply weren’t many articles dedicated to this topic. In any event, I did find a couple of interesting view points on laughter and pain:

German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer argued that “to feel envy is human, but to enjoy other people’s misfortune is diabolical.” Unlike instances where the subject of the pain somehow deserved the outcome, the case in point did nothing to warrant the acute payoff. The commentators had thus shifted the negativity of the situation onto the individual, which Schopenhauer regarded as one of the worst traits as it resembled cruelty. The view was that glee in another’s misfortune (in this case, pain) was more nefarious than displeasure in another’s success.

An alternative proposal attempts to lay the cause of why we laugh at the base of neurology. In cases of situational comedy, our laughter arises independent of forethought. Everything is really dependant on the brain and we can’t control the reaction to humour. Three theories exist on why we find certain things funny:

1.       The incongruity theory: Humour arises when there is an improbability or inconsistency, such as the body of a joke versus the punch line.  The incongruity (the disconnect between what we anticipate and what actually happens) “tickles” the brain which then influences our perception and presents something as funny, or not.

2.       The superiority theory: Laughter is engaged when we feel superior to someone who has made a mistake. It’s one of the reasons why blonde jokes are so popular – they focus on the stupidity of someone and it makes us feel better about ourselves.

3.       The relief theory: When tension builds up to a peak and then dissipates, we often breathe a sigh of relief and laugh (involuntarily). According to Dr. Lisa Rosenberg, “The act of producing humour, of making a joke, gives us a mental break and increases our objectivity in the face of overwhelming stress,”

The first theory appears to explain the responses to the video clip best. The distress factor clearly wasn’t great enough to override the irony. Would the reactions be different had the girl’s nose been broken by the impact? At what point will delight switch to sympathy and horror? Are shows like Jackass turning us into desensitized beings who no longer can relate to a stranger? Is the line of appropriateness slowly retreating back to the territory of inappropriateness? You decide.

  • Mac

    Psychology is not an exact science but I would peg the absurdity of the situation as the source of the humour….in essence what you’ve described as the incongruity theory.

    With regards to the appropriateness point – i disagree that we are turning into desensitised beings because we watch Jackass, i think that one of the reasons we don’t properly relate to the woman in the clip is that the tv acts like a step of separation – cutting us off from the reality of the situation. In essence, its happening to ‘something’, not to someone.

    However, I also think that to some degree people have found misery, pain, death etc funny for a while. Consider the Schopenhauer quotation, why would he comment about it if it didn’t happen in his day and age too. Also consider the jokes that follow a disaster. Morally, perhaps it is disgusting that we should find it funny and distasteful to pass on the jokes, and perhaps it does indicate a level of cruelty in humans, that doesn’t change the fact that it elicits a laugh from many.

    Thanks for the article – it was a good read!

  • amy

    As an experiment, I showed the clip of my friends and interestingly, the guys all laughed while the girls didn’t. Maybe gender also plays a role in how we respond to certain acts of violence, aggression, pain, suffering, etc. Girls find it easier to relate to fictional characters (hence crying during soppy RomComs), so TV’s role as a ‘separator’ diminishes.

    I think those who watch/enjoy watching shows like Jackass already have a predisposition towards that kind of humour. The more their brains associate humour with those sort of imagery, the less likely it will be for them to feel disturbed by it. So maybe repetition plays a role as well.

  • jonathan

    I’m not sure an experiment where you watch your friends’ reactions in particularly unbiased. People tend, when in a social situation, to act according to some expected role which might explain why the girls felt they needed to be sympathetic and guys felt like they needed to be laddish. So you gender explanation is potentially cyclical – guys simply play the role is portrayed as the ‘male’ way to behave in media.

    Schopenhauer also had a different kind of schadenfreude in his day – a kind in which laughter at someones misfortune generally increased that misfortune, since that person was typically present or at least part of the community laughing at them. In the youtube days, there is no impact that my laughter has on the person being laughed at (ruling out rude comments, of course). In this case, I think that laughing is the best course of action: it serves as a destressor for you without having any negative impact on anybody else in the world, thus there is at least some positive coming from the persons misfortune. In the case where we cringe or feel overly empathetic, we are hurting ourselves a little, making ourselves feel slightly more blue than before, and suddenly there is increased misfortune in the world.

    Thus I think that if you don’t laugh at such clips, you have a moral obligation to try to enjoy them a little more :) Were we to feel true empathy for every person we see portrayed in a negative situation in the media (and just thinking of news coverage of floods, there are a lot), we would have little capacity left over to smile at the world. Your negative emotion is not helping in any way, so I suggest smiling when you have the opportunity!

  • Juliette

    At first glance it seems slightly absurd to make one’s reaction to you tube videos or news into a normative issue: after all, these are reactions that seem to be out of one’s control, at least to some extent (leaving aside some room for manipulating one’s expressed reaction as may have been the case in the group of guys/group of girls experiment). Interestingly though, our instinctive reactions do seem to say things about us; for example, they can reveal what we value. If one’s heart beats faster with excitement at the prospect of some event occurring, one can conclude that one places value on that event. And our reactions can also reveal things about our character; for example, if the event in question is the murder of a bus load of people, it is safe to conclude that the person who becomes excited at the prospect is evil. Aristotle would argue that a virtuous person would react consistently with empathy to another’s pain, so that although one has limited control over the reaction in the moment, one has control over which dispositions one fosters in oneself, by choosing either to act consistently virtuously or not. I have some sympathy with this view, however, let’s consider for a moment Jonathan’s (classically utilitarian) justifications for urging us not to feel ‘bad’ for the watermelon victim: if the world is a better place if we can develop the ability to be indifferent to videos of people suffering, should we aim not to be emotionally affected (assuming we have some control over our reactions)?

    For one, I am not convinced that the world would be a better place were we able to do this. I would worry that such a reaction would spread into our reactions to pain suffered by people outside of videos. In any case, even if there is a degree of separation when watching videos, the pain being observed still occurred. Not being affected by the news, though easier psychologically for the individual spared painful feelings, is not ideal in societies that depend on people’s empathy to cope with humanitarian disasters. Sympathy is motivating and as such useful in increasing the amount of happiness in the world. However, even if I am wrong and the happiness of the world is left unaffected by our reactions to videos of all sorts, I still think there is something a little monstrous and inhuman about being unaffected by another’s pain in a video. The reason may lie here: Schopenhauer thinks that one’s reactions to another’s pain and the capacity to suffer in general reveals something about our brain capacity. He writes, ‘Nature shows that with the growth of intelligence comes increased capacity for pain, and it is only with the highest degree of intelligence that suffering reaches its supreme point’. So I suggest only smiling when there is something worth smiling about! If only to prove your intelligence 

  • Juliette

    (that was supposed to be a smiling icon at the end)

  • amy

    Thanks for the input :)

    @Jonathan: That’s circumstantial. When I asked them to watch the video, there was no pressure on them to behave in a certain way. They didn’t know I was monitoring their responses; nor did they know I was going to blog about it. It was just a case of one person sharing a video with a close group of friends. I don’t see why they would behave any differently than they would have if they were by themselves. In any event, I think it’s pretty easy to tell whether a friend’s laughter is genuine or fake, especially if you know the person well.

    @Juliette: I agree. It’s one thing to take on a positive light and not let the badness of the world affect you; it’s another to actually find glee in the misfortune of others.