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 idea for this post came from this video clip:

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 headshot.

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. 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.

German philosopher Arthur Schopenhaue 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 Schopenhaue 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 over-ride 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 Jack Ass 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.