Too Soon? Too Late? Psychological Distance Matters When It Comes to Humor

This is a photo of a banana peel.Joking around can land us in hot water. Comedian Jeffrey Ross’s routine at a roast of Roseanne Barr was censored when he joked about the shooting in Aurora, Colorado. “Too soon!” everyone said.

In an upcoming article in Psychological Science, Peter McGraw and his colleagues at the Humor Research Lab (HuRL) at the University of Colorado Boulder explore how violation severity (how “bad” it is) and psychological distance (how removed we are) work together to facilitate humor.

In their first study, participants were asked to describe an event from their lives that became either more funny or less funny as time passed. Participants then rated the event’s severity. In line with the researchers’ hypothesis, events that became funnier over time were rated more severe than the events that lost their comedic effect, which were seen as mild violations.

These findings were supported by the results of a second study, in which participants perceived a severe violation (being hit by a car) as funnier if it happened “five years ago,” while they found a mild violation (stubbing a toe) to be funnier if it happened “yesterday.”

The researchers conducted additional tests to examine the effects of social distance and perceived physical distance on humor. Both types of distance affected the participants’ sense of humor.

Together, the five studies confirm that the space, time, social relationships, and hypotheticality that separate us from a violation interact with the severity of an event to influence how humorous a violation seems to us.

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