What Is The Benign Violation Theory of Humour?

Benign Violation Theory

What Is The Benign Violation Theory?

The Benign Violation Theory proposes that humour occurs only when three conditions are met within a situation:

  1. A violation occurs
  2. The situation is benign
  3. Both prior conditions occur simultaneously.

The theory successfully offers a general theory of humour by combining various elements from other prominent humour theories.

Humour theories are plentiful but there is no single theory of humour that fully accounts for all types of humour and all humorous situations.

However, the Benign Violation Theory does provide a comprehensive general theory of humour.

Its success can be largely attributed to it being an accessible model which is easy to understand, along with how easily it can be applied to explain humorous (and non-humorous) examples. 

VIDEO: Benign Violation Theory of Humour Explained

Who Proposed The Benign Violation Theory?

The Benign Violation Theory was proposed by Caleb Warren and Peter McGraw in 2010 (read their original article which proposed this theory). 

Caleb Warren is Professor in Consumer Behaviour at the University of Arizona.

Peter McGraw is Associate Professor of Marketing and Psychology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

McGraw also directs the Humor Research Lab (affectionately nicknamed HuRL) at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

The research centre is dedicated to the scientific study of humour and the centre uses the Benign Violation Theory as its theoretical framework for research.

Peter McGraw has written a fantastic book entitled, The Humour Code, and if you are interested in the theory of humour I would certainly recommend it.

What is a Violation?

In relation to the Benign Violation Theory, a violation refers to anything that threatens someone’s beliefs about how they think the world should be.

In other words, if something seems to be threatening, unsettling or just just doesn’t feel right, it may be considered to be violation.

Violations might also be considered ‘incongruities’ where the reality of a situation is not aligned with someone’s expectations of what the situation ought to be.

With this in mind, violations can come in many forms: physical, psychological, cognitive, behavioural, logical and moral. 

Physical violations may come in the form of play-fighting or tickling where the person is exposed to a potential physical threat.

Psychological violations may come in the form of sarcasm or an insult where a person’s mental well-being is violated. 

Cognitive violations may come in the form of a joke or pun where the person expects one thing and the joke or pun serves them with an unexpected alternative.

Behavioural violations, usually associated with a social or cultural incongruity, may come in the form of someone behaving in a way is not typically acceptable in a given context. For example, someone passing wind in an elevator, burping loudly at the dinner table, or accidentally falling over during a serious funeral service.

Logical violations can occur when someone experiences something abnormal or absurd that does not follow normal processes, rules or patterns. 

Moral violations can be anything that challenges a person’s moral beliefs, such as when someone challenges your religious or political perspective. 

It is important to highlight that a violation can only occur if the person experiencing it perceives it to be a violation.

There are some examples where a violation is more clearly obvious and where the violation is likely to be considered a violation by most people. But other examples of violations are less well-defined and open to interpretation.

Therefore it is common for a given situation to be considered a violation by one person, and not a violation by another person.

What is a Benign Situation?

Violations, on their own, do not generate humour. For a violation to generate humour is also needs to be perceived as being benign.

In order to provide clarity on the word ‘benign’, it refers to something that is considered to be safe, acceptable and/or non-threatening.

As with violations, whether a situation is benign or not is entirely determined but the individual with differences in option being expressed by different people for the same situation. 

One person may consider a situation to be completely benign, whereas another person may not. 

An example of this could be a joke that mocks a specific political viewpoint. If the person is already opposed to the viewpoint, or have a weak association with the viewpoint, being mocked they would likely find the violation to be benign and in turn would find the joke to be humorous.

Alternatively, if the person holds strong political views which are aligned with the viewpoints being mocked they may find this not to be benign and in turn would not find the joke to be humorous.

Research conducted at HuRL has identified three ways in which a violation can be considered to be benign:

  1. Alternative norms (for example, one meaning of a phrase in a pun doesn’t make sense, but the other meaning does).
  2. Commitment to a violated norm (for example, men find sexist jokes funnier than women do).
  3. Psychological distance (for example, the saying, “comedy is tragedy plus time”).
The difference in individual perceptions of what is considered a violation and what is considered benign is excellently summed up by Mel Brooks…

“Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”

Examples of Benign Violation Theory

Below are three examples which aim to demonstrate how the Benign Violation Theory can be used to explain why something is, and is not, humorous.

Example 1: Physical Humour

McGraw often uses the example of tickling to explain his Benign Violation Theory, he even begins his Ted Talk by referring to tickling.

Laughing humorously when being tickled by someone you trust is a benign violations because it is a physically threatening, but harmless attack.

The violation is produced  by the physical threat and the situation is benign due to the trust you have in the person doing the tickling.

If either of these two components were to be removed the humour would be lost.

If the violation was removed and situation was completely benign, and you were trying to tickle yourself, it would not be humorous (you cannot tickle yourself). 

Similarly, if the situation was not benign and only the violation was present, you were being tickled by a creepy stranger, it would not be humorous. 

Example 2: Pun Humour

Puns are a play on words and provide simple examples of the Benign Violation Theory. 

A pun uses words which do not align with normal grammatical standards or words which have different interpretations and meanings. The violation is therefore a linguistic violation.

If the pun does not threaten you or your beliefs it is considered benign.  

“A boiled egg every morning is hard to beat.”

“A nun stole some fabric from the priest. The priest said, ‘don’t make a habit of it.”

“I’ve been to the dentist many times so I know the drill.”

The above examples are Benign Violations as the word play violates preconceived ideas and the topics are non-threatening or non-offensive. 

If the word play was absent then the violation would be removed rendering the sentence non-humorous. 

If the topic of the pun was considered offensive of threatening then again the humour would be lost. For example, if you were a nun you may find the joke about a nun stealing fabric offensive. 

Example 3: Slapstick Humour

A man is walking along a road and smiles at a women passing by him. Not looking he falls head first down a man-hole. He emerges unhurt and continues on his way. 

This is a Benign Violation with the violation be produced by the man unexpectedly falling down a man-hole and the situation is benign as he emerges unhurt. 

If the violation was removed and the man simply walked down the road without falling it would not be humorous. 

If the man fell into the man-hole and seriously injured himself the situation would not be considered benign and again would not be humorous.

Check Out Caleb Warren and Peter McGraw's TED Talks

VIDEO: TED Talk - Peter McGraw

VIDEO: TED Talk - Caleb Warren

Author: Jonathan Sandling