Humor is a good way to deal with fucked up situations, but sometimes it just isn’t appropriate. The trouble is that line is very fine. It’s difficult to know when the timing is right to unleash that perfectly crafted joke about the latest natural disaster or untimely death. Peter McGraw, associate professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Colorado Boulder, claims to have an answer: there’s a “sweet spot” for this type of comedy.
In a paper in Social Psychological and Personality Science, McGraw suggests that our amused reactions to tragedy can be described by something called “the benign violation theory.” As psychological distance from an upsetting event, or a violation, increases, tragedy can morph into humor. But there’s a tipping point: at some point, there is too much distance and the upsetting event becomes too benign and not relevant enough to generate amusement.
According to this theory, the “sweet spot” happens when a violative event, whether a national disaster or personal tragedy, is close enough psychologically that it’s still relevant, but far enough away that it doesn’t sting as much.
To demonstrate this, McGraw and his colleagues used the lens of Hurricane Sandy. Over 1,000 people participated in an online survey wherein they responded to three tweets from a parody Twitter account called @AHurricaneSandy. The tweets included such all-caps quips as,
“JUST BLEW THE ROOF OFF A OLIVE GARDEN FREE BREADSTICKS 4 EVERYONE”
“OH SHIT JUST DESTROYED A STARBUCKS. NOW I’M A PUMPKIN SPICE HURRICANE”
“DIS BITCH WAS LIKE ‘I’M DYING AT HURRICANE SANDY TWEETS’ AND I’M LIKE YOU ABOUT TO BE DYIN IN REAL LIFE HOE.”
Because psychological distance can take the form of temporal distance, the key here was that the participants were surveyed at different points in time. Different groups were queried the day before the hurricane, the day of landfall, and a selection of eight other dates from November 2012 to February 2013.
What McGraw found confirmed benign violation. The day before the hurricane, the threat didn’t yet seem real so the tweets were considered funny. But as soon as it hit and the world saw the damage wrought, the humor of these tweets precipitously dropped. Over the next few months, humor fluctuated. According to the surveys, November 14 was the least funny day. But as we gained some distance over the coming weeks, humor picked up again with the funny apex occurring on December 5. Eventually, humor dropped once more in February when Sandy was no longer topical enough.
McGraw explaining the benign violation theory at a 2010 TEDx event in Boulder.
This is far from McGraw’s first academic study of all things funny. At the University of Colorado Boulder, he runs the Humor Research Lab, fittingly also known as HuRL. In 2010, he published an article that he says “started it all,” examining the broader components of benign violation theory by asking people to respond to specific moral violations, like snorting your dead father’s ashes or having sex with a dead chicken before you cook it. (Note: It’s a weird read.)
Another paper in 2012 explored different kinds of psychological distance and different kinds of violations. He also has a book coming out on the subject, called The Humor Code. In short: the dude is kind of an expert on laughing at the worst parts of life.
If McGraw’s benign violation theory is true, it’s worthwhile to think about next time you try to make a 9/11 joke or a Nelson Mandela joke. Are people going to think you’re a comedic mastermind, maybe the next Amy Poehler or Louis C.K., or just think you’re the biggest asshole? Maybe, if the joke is too outdated, they’ll even just think you’re lame. Looking for that “sweet spot” is complicated: it’s not just a question of “too soon,” but also “too late.”