We have countless reasons to laugh: verbal jokes, juggling, tickling… But is humor unique to the human species? In short, no. But it also depends on how humor is defined.
For millennia, philosophers and psychologists have struggled to define precisely what constitutes the concept of humor. The most well-known of the numerous theories they have produced about the concept is the “conflict theory”, that is, the funny situation that arises as a result of encountering an unexpected situation.
In this context, the vast majority of animals probably lack a sense of humor because their cognitive levels are not developed enough to distinguish unexpected situations.
One example that falls out of this majority is Koko, a famous gorilla who can understand more than 1,000 American Sign Language and 2,000 English words. The smart gorilla can use words with double meanings and make sense of jokes made with body language. For example, after tying his trainer’s shoelaces together, he pointed to the word “chase” and made laughing sounds.
But there are still some unanswered questions about incompatibility theory and other similar theories. For example, while we continue to find jokes with high predictability funny, some inconsistent things never seem funny to us.
Harmless attack theory
In recent years, psychologists have come up with a different theory: the harmless attack theory. Accordingly, humor emerges when it both threatens one’s well-being, identity, or belief, and the threat seems harmless.
The harmless attack theory explains why many things make people laugh, including being tickled: Being tickled violates a person’s physical space. You can’t tickle yourself because it’s not considered a violation, and strangers can’t tickle you until you laugh, because you wouldn’t take it as a bona fide act.
Within this theory, some animals can be said to have a “sense of humor” because they can be tickled.
According to a 2009 study, our primate relatives such as chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans can make sounds similar to laughter when tickled. This suggests that we probably inherited our sense of humor and laughter from humans and the great ape.
Another study conducted in 2015 revealed that chimpanzees can smile silently, just like humans.
The dogs wearing the phrase “let’s play” evokes humor.
Interestingly, the most researched animal is the mouse! Mice attract a lot of attention with their ability to tickle and laugh. They even enjoyed being tickled so much that they followed the researcher’s fingers for more!