The other morning while we were walking our dogs, my husband slipped on some snow and fell down in front of me. One moment he was stepping over a log, and the next he was on his back, feet up in the air. I laughed hysterically.
He wasn’t hurt. Nor was he amused. And his grumpiness just made the whole episode that much more comical. I couldn’t stop laughing, even after he pointed out that it was actually kind of mean to giggle over his misfortune. I agreed that it was rotten of me, yet I couldn’t stop smirking.
And that got me wondering — why is it so funny when someone falls?
Turns out, scientists are on it. I’ll explain their findings in a minute. But first, notice how many examples of this kind of humor circulate on the internet. Here are three of them, starting with the Ice Man. I dare you not to laugh.
Here’s another example, starring a longboarder and a deer.
Ok, one more. Ow, My Balls! (from the movie Idiocracy.)
Peter McGraw is an associate professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and the director of the Humor Research Lab (aka HuRL). He and his colleague Caleb Warren have developed a theory that explains why it’s so funny when people fall down. Their benign violation theory proposes that something is funny if three conditions are met. First, ordinary life is somehow thrown off balance. They call this a violation — “anything that threatens the way you think the world ought to be.” Second, this violation is benign. No one gets hurt. Finally, these first two conditions must happen simultaneously.
McGraw and his team published a study last year offering some empirical evidence for their theory. In a series of five experiments, the researchers asked participants to rate the funniness of various anecdotes. For instance, in one iteration they asked college students to rate which is more humorous: stubbing your toe five years ago or stubbing your toe yesterday? In another trial, volunteers were asked to give a humor rating to a text message indicating that the sender had accidentally donated $2,000 or $50 to a charity.
The results showed a clear pattern — proximity and seriousness matter. A tragedy can only be funny when it happens to someone you don’t know (Darwin awards), whereas mishaps like a stubbed toe are most humorous when they happen to someone close to you. If a stranger loses $50 it’s hardly amusing, but if it’s your brother, it’s hilarious. Likewise, you’re more likely to laugh when a stranger yells, “ow, my balls!” than when your son does.
The theory does a pretty good job of explaining why I couldn’t stop laughing when Dave tumbled on our trail. His fall was was a violation — he’s normally extremely sure-footed, and I’m the bumbler in our relationship. (I’ll admit that this turn of events made me feel a bit smug.) Finally, his fall was benign. If he’d been hurt, it would have ceased to be funny. Of course if it were me, it wouldn’t have been funny at all.