A brief introduction to the benign violation theory of humor – guest post by Dr Peter McGraw

In this short post,  Dr Peter McGraw introduces his universal  theory of humor called the benign violation theory. The theory draws to a certain degree on the notion of  incongruity, present in other cognitive theories of humor appreciation. The post was originally published on the Humor Research Lab (HuRL) blog by Dr McGraw in September 2010. Both the theory and its author has gone on a long journey since – both academically and literally: Dr McGraw, together with  a journalist Joel Warner, went on a “far-reaching search for the secret behind humor”, which resulted in a book published recently  under a somewhat enigmatic title:  The Humor Code. Find more about and order the book on humorcode.com. Dr Peter McGraw and Joel Warner agreed to do an interview for psycholofyofhumor.com, so stay tuned for more details about they journey and humor-discoveries they made in different parts of the world…
– Piotr Pluta


Below I introduce the benign violation theory and discuss a paper, Benign violations: Making immoral behavior funny, that Caleb Warren and I recently published in the August 2010 volume of Psychological Science.


The benign violation theory builds on work by Tom Veatch and integrates existing humor theories to propose that humor occurs when and only when three conditions are satisfied: (1) a situation is violation, (2) the situation is benign, and (3) both perceptions occur simultaneously. A violation occurs when a situation threatens the way that you believe the world “ought” to be. Simply put, something seems wrong. Violations take many forms, ranging from tickling and playfighting to the violations of linguistical norms, conventions, and rules that take place in puns.

Benign Violation Theory - Peter McGraw


There are also many ways to make a violation benign. In the paper, we tested three: 1) A violation can seem benign because of a lack of commitment to the violated norm, such as when people who are not religious laugh when a church gives away a Hummer SUV; 2) A violation can seem benign because of distance from the violation, such as when it occurs to someone else, happened long ago, or doesn’t seem real; and 3) A violation can seem benign because of an alternative interpretation, as occurs in the case of playfighting and tickling. The benign violation theory suggests that primates often laugh when play fighting and tickling because both are mock attacks — laughter signals a threatening situation is okay.


McGraw, A.P. & Warren, C. (2010). Benign violations: Making immoral behavior funny. Psychological Science21, 1141-1149. LINK

Categories: Cognitive and General.


  1. Christopher

    A person hunts an animal, kills it and eats it. This satisfies the condition of being simultaneously perceived as a violation and as benign. So much for your theory!

    • Interesting point! First, this is not my theory but Peter McGraw’s… Second, well, theory argues that a situation has to be perceived simultaneusly as benign and as a vialotion. Your example looks more like a sequence. Nonetheless, I agree that the theory – the way it is presented – could be more precise. Two points from another cognitive psychology theory are very relevant for your example: in order to produce humor, not only a situation has to have two simultaneus interpretations (in the language of McGraw’s theory: a benign and vialoting one) but also (a.) one of the interpretations has to reduce the importance or status of the situation in relation to the other and (b.) the situation has to be unrelated to any serious, importang goals or objectives of the person perceiving it (relatively in this context). Well, that’s a bit of a complicated explanation… To learn more look up humor in Apter’s book on reversal theory from 1984, e.g.

    • Maggie

      The theory doesn’t state that every situation that is a violation and benign is humorous rather that in order to be humorous, a situation needs to be a violation and benign. Although, your answer is pretty funny.


  1. […] jokes really are benign violations (this is my favorite theory of humor–a field I wish I’d known existed when I was in […]