When you experience a traumatic event, initially it is certainly not the focal point of someone else's joke. However, as time goes on, many may ease their distress with humor, but when is it okay to joke about tragedies?
According to the Benign Violation Theory, humor emerges when we perceive something that is wrong (a violation), while also seeing that it is okay (benign). Psychological distance may be one key component that can make a violation seem okay. Research has demonstrated that once a person is removed from a violation by space, time, relationships, or imagination, it can foster humor.
In a study conducted by psychological scientist Peter McGraw, who runs the Humor Research Lab (HuRL) at the University of Colorado Boulder, and colleagues explored when violation severity and psychological distance work together to facilitate humor.
Participants were instructed to take an online survey where they would rate an event in their lives by the severity and distinguish if the event became more or less funny over time.
McGraw discovered participants who reported a violation, such as being hit by a car, was funnier if it occurred five years go. While a mild violation such as hitting a toe, was funny if it occurred yesterday.
Five studies were conducted and supported the theory. Participants stated events that became funnier over time were more severe than events that were categorized as mild violations.
All five studies demonstrated with space, time and social relationships, an individual may categorize a once severe event as very humorous one over time.
"These findings suggest that there's a real sweet spot in comedy - you have to get the right mix between how bad something is and how distant it is in order for it to be seen as a benign violation," McGraw said.
This study was published in the journal Psychological Science.