Why is something funny? Introducing incongruity.

The post titled “What is humor? An attempt at definition” might have been a disappointment: all it explained was how humor is typically seen by psychologists studying it and instead of unraveling the mystery of what makes some things funny, I gave you a somewhat general definition.

However, in order to even superficially answer the question “Why is something funny?” I have to go back to that definition and in one part of it in particular: humor viewed as a mental process.

So, which are the mental processes involved in “getting a joke”? Are there any general rules or mechanisms common for all kinds of humor: Be it Monty Python, a cat in a shark costume or 4,000 years old potty-humor?

To begin with, the cognitive oriented researchers believe that all instances of humor involve some kind of incongruity – an idea, image, text, or event that is in some sense odd, unusual, unexpected, surprising, or out of the ordinary (Martin, 2007).

Koestler was one of the first authors that attempted to explain the cognitive mechanisms involved in humor on the basis of incongruity. In his now almost a half-century old book The Act of Creation (1964), he used the following example to explain humor [1]:

A Marquis at the court of Louis XIV, when entering his wife’s boudoir and finding her in the arms of a Bishop, walked calmly to the window and went through the motions of blessing the people in the street.

‘What are you doing?’ cried the anguished wife.

‘Monseigneur is performing my functions,’ replied the Marquis, ‘so I am performing his.’

Koestler, 1964, p. 33

Koestler explains that the crucial point in this story is the Marquis’ unexpected reaction: instead of grabbing his black powder pistol, a dagger or – what the heck – a guillotine in a furious attempt to punish the adulterers (as we expect any honourable French aristocrat would), he calmly approaches the window and blesses the passer-byes.

According to Koestler, Marquis’ behaviour is both unexpected and perfectly logical… with another type of logic: “the logic of the division of labour, the quid pro quo, the give and take” (Koestler, 1964). Thus the pattern underlying this and other humorous stories involves perceiving of a situation or idea, L, in two frames of reference M1 and M2 at the same time (see figure below):


Humor processing - Koestler's bisociation theory.

Seeing an incongruous event (L) simultaneously in two perspectives (M1 and M2). Source: Koestler, 1964.


At occurrence of the event L, in which the two frames intersect, is when what Koestler called bisociation occurs: perceiving a situation, event, or idea simultaneously in two self-consistent but normally exclusive frames of reference.

Of course, there is much more to the relationship between humor and incongruity, and Koestler’s theory is comprehensive but only one of the first attempts to explain it. Not in all situations, and not all instances of incongruity will be equally fit to combine two frames of reference. Occurrence of the “odd, surprising and unexpected” is a necessary but certainly not a sufficient condition to give raise to humor.

However, I promised myself not to write posts longer than four… five hundred words, so forgive me if I leave you now yet again in a somewhat incongruous position. I will go back to the theme of incongruity in the cognitive psychology of humor on many occasion in future posts, so stay tuned and check the ‘cognitive’ category for updates.



Koestler, A. (1964). The Act of Creation. New York: The Macmillan Company.

Martin, R. A. (2007). The psychology of humor: an integrative approach. Burlington: Elsevier Academic Press


[1] This now perhaps outdated joke has a long history in humor studies: it was first used by Freud in his essay on the comic (1905). Given its theme no wonder it could have appeared interesting to the father of psychoanalysis…



Categories: Cognitive.


  1. […] oriented researchers believe that “all instances of humor involve some kind of incongruity.” This means that if people are expecting one outcome, instead they get an odd, unusual, or […]