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Freud's theory of humor.

F
Freuds Theory of Humor
Maria Christoff and Barry Dauphin
Department of Psychology, University of
Detroit Mercy, Detroit, MI, USA
Synonyms
Freuds theory of jokes;Freuds theory of joke-
work;Psychoanalytic theory of humor;Psycho-
analytic theory of humor;Psychoanalytic theory
of jokes
Definition
The following entry describes Freuds(1900,
1905,1928) psychoanalytic theory of jokes,
humor, and their relation to unconscious
processes.
Introduction
In The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) Sigmund
Freud made many preliminary connections
between the psychic processes found in the pro-
duction of dreams and with the production of
humor. Encouraged by a correspondence with
his friend Wilhelm Fliess, Freud went on to
write a book entirely devoted to an examination
of the comic, humor, and jokes, entitled Jokes and
their Relation to the Unconscious (1905). Freud
later reected that this work considered humor
really from the economic view alone,and
remedied this with the short paper Humour
(1928), which included a view of humor from
his revised structural model of the psyche (p. 1).
Freuds structural model was largely developed
in The Ego and the Id (1923/1961) and can be
reviewed there. The main text of this entry
summarizes Freuds contributions made to the
psychoanalytic theory of humor. Later psychoan-
alytic developments are brought to bear on
Freuds theory on humor.
Dream-Work/Joke-Work
In his 1905 text, Freud states that the unconscious
processes involved in the development of jokes
are nearly identical to those involved in dreaming.
In dreaming, preconscious day residue,includ-
ing desires and impulses repressed from con-
sciousness, are ltered through the dynamic
unconscious portion of the psyche (p. 160).
These desires and impulses have been defensively
denied due to their lack of accordance with
learned societal restrictions upon acceptable
behavior and expression. In order for the sleeper
to stay asleep, instead of being disturbed by the
processing of such material, the unconscious dis-
guises it, giving it a revised form, which is no
longer threatening, and makes this material acces-
sible to consciousness. This entire process is
#Springer International Publishing AG 2017
V. Zeigler-Hill, T.K. Shackelford (eds.), Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences,
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-28099-8_588-1
called dream-work. Joke-work, the waking corre-
late of dream-work, has many similarities. Jokes
seem to come to their creator complete, in a
momentary period of blankness, signaling their
emergence from the unconscious mind, similar
to the current bottom-up processing theory of
cognitive psychology (Rauss and Pourtois 2013).
More importantly, the joke-work transforms unac-
ceptable impulses and emotions into pleasurable
ones, by means of replacing obscenity, aggres-
sion, cynicism, and deep skepticism with laughter.
The dream-work and joke-work alike make use of
the following psychic tools to complete these
transformations: condensation, displacement,
and indirect representation. Condensation makes
use of the multiple meanings of words, for exam-
ple in the joke, The man walked into the bar and
said, Ouch.’” Displacement, or modication,
refers to slight differences in words or word
usage, or the formation of composite words,
which leads to humorous formulations. Freud
(1905) gives this example: A horse-dealer was
recommending a saddle-horse to a customer. If
you take this horse and get on it at four in the
morning youll be at Pressburg by half-past six.’–
What should I be doing in Pressburg at half-past
six in the morning?’” (p. 54). Indirect representa-
tion includes such joke-techniques as absurdity,
faulty reasoning, and analogies. Freud (1905)
gives an example: Everyone has his moral back-
side, which he does not show except in case of
need and which he covers as long as possible with
the breeches of respectability,(p. 84). Whereas
dream-work seeks to minimize displeasure, joke-
work seeks to maximize pleasure. Freud (1905)
adds, all our mental activities converge in these
two aims,(p. 180).
Economy of Joking
In order to describe this economic convergence of
the two aims of minimizing displeasure and max-
imizing pleasure, Freud asked why the person
who thought of the joke feels it needs to be told,
and what psychic processes take place in the lis-
tener, versus the teller. In the teller of the joke,
psychic energy is occupied in repressing from
consciousness, for example, feelings of aggres-
sion towards another person. Through uncon-
scious joke-work, the energy formerly occupied
by repression is released, and the aggression
becomes expressible, in a now innocuous form,
a joke. However, the rst person uses psychic
energy in the unconscious processes of creating
the joke. In telling the joke to a third person, and
making this third person laugh, the rst person is
able to observe the laughter of the third person,
and share in a further release of energy through
mutual laughter. For the listener, the repressed
impulse is presented and released in quick succes-
sion, allowing for a rapid and intense experience
of pleasure. For both the teller and the hearer of
the joke, empathy and a placing of oneself into the
thought processes of the other are essential for this
procedure to be successful. The thinking of one
mind into another described by Freud resembles
the subsequent theory of mind proposed by Pre-
mack and Woodruff (1978). However, Freud
(1905) goes beyond reliance on empathy alone
and suggests a form of ideational mimetics,
(p. 192) quite similar to recent research into the
function of mirror neurons (Rizzolatti and
Craighero, 2004), in which the listener uncon-
sciously imagines themselves in the place of the
teller. The complex exchange between teller and
listener in the joking process described by Freud
(1905) also foreshadows the later object relations
concept of projective identication described by
Klein (1975), Bion (1983), and Bollas (1987), in
which psychic energies are constantly being
exchanged in the course of normal and psycho-
therapeutic interactions, and in which the inner
psychic economy is intimately tied to the psychic
processes within others. In this mutual exchange,
laughter is a relaxation of tension,and a release
from constraint,for both parties (Freud 1905,
p. 147).
The Highest of Defensive Processes
In conclusion to his 1905 book, Freud declares
that humor, like repression, is a defensive process.
Although he noted that, We get an impression
that the subjective determinants of the joke-work
2 Freuds Theory of Humor
are often not far removed from those of neurotic
illness,and the joker is a disunited personality,
disposed to neurotic disorders,he quickly
dismissed any inherent connection between
humor and neurosis (Freud 1905, p. 142). Instead,
he concluded that humorous displacement, unlike
other defense mechanisms, directly faces the per-
ceived psychic threat. Humor acknowledges the
existence of the threatening affect and transforms
it through the mechanisms described above into
pleasurable affect. In his 1928 paper, Freud
amends that this healthy defensive maneuver is
made possible through the Is alignment with the
Above-I, the internalized voices of our parents as
they encouraged us to be brave, to adopt a
humorous attitude to ward off suffering,to buck
up, and persevere (Freud 1928, p. 3). In this way,
it can still help us to adapt to lifes challenges. In
Freuds(1928) words, Humor is not resigned; it
is rebellious. It signies the triumph not only of
the ego, but also of the pleasure-principle, which
is strong enough to assert itself here in the face the
adverse real circumstances,(p. 2).
Conclusion
In conclusion, this entry reviewed Freuds(1905)
comparison of dream-work and joke-work, pre-
sented a summation of the economic model of
jokes including internal psychic processes taking
place in both the teller and the listener, and sum-
marized Freuds(1928) additions to his theory of
humor.
References
Bion, W. (1983). Attention and interpretation. Lanham:
Rowman and Littleeld Publishers, Inc.
Bollas, C. (1987). The shadow of the object: Psychoanal-
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Freud, S. (1900). The interpretation of dreams. The stan-
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Freud, S. (1928). Humour. International Journal of
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Freud, S. (1961). The ego and the id. In J. Strachey
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Rizzolatti, G., & Craighero, L. (2004). The mirror-neuron
system. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 27, 169192.
Freuds Theory of Humor 3
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Love guilt and reparation: And other works (1921-1924)
  • M Klein
Klein, M. (1975). Love guilt and reparation: And other works (1921-1924). New York, NY: The Free Press.
  • S Freud
Freud, S. (1928). Humour. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 9, 1-6.