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Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter Mouton August 26, 2020

All laughter is nervous: An anxiety-based understanding of incongruous humor

Dean Anthony Granitsas
From the journal HUMOR


Mirth may alleviate negative feelings that could be aroused by a humor stimulus. Pity and embarrassment have been advanced as anxieties that could be caused by cruel and obscene humor in the absence of mirth. Incongruity, however, remains an explanatory challenge for arousal/anxiety-based interpretations of humor. In order to find ways that incongruity could be provocative, this paper analyzes similarities between the external stimuli of mirthful responses and the external stimuli of paranoid responses, which both demonstrate ambiguity and uncanniness. It is posited that mirth deactivates a fearful reaction to incongruity, suppressing suspicion and delusions that could be triggered when a surreal event is interpreted in a non-playful way. While extreme incongruity may arouse discomfort in any perceiver, it is argued that paranoid individuals have a higher sensitivity, due in some cases to early, traumatic exposure to an incongruous stimulus that resisted mirthful deactivation. These observations are presented without theoretical commitment, but with emphasis on the explicatory potential of the play and false alarm theories.

Corresponding author: Dean Anthony Granitsas, E-mail:


The author wishes to thank Yuanna Liu for friendship and support.


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Published Online: 2020-08-26

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