General Question

phillis's avatar

Why is it human nature to laugh when someone gets hurt?

Asked by phillis (8588 points ) December 20th, 2009

There is another new TV show whose premise is showing clips of people getting hurt. Massive horse kicks to the face, even to a small child. I find this appalling, and am wondering, from a psychological standpoint, why it is human nature to laugh when someone gets hurt. I am repulsed by it, and cannot bear to watch a show like that. I don’t find it funny whatsoever. This human response confounds me.

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63 Answers

Excalibur's avatar

Do they phyllis? I have never seen that before. However, laughter can be a nervous reaction to avoid showing one’s true feelings and a response to shock. Some children laugh when a parent gets angry with them. This too is a protective mechanism to avoid the hurt that they could potentially feel.

phillis's avatar

Indeed, they do. Hence, the TV show :)

ItalianPrincess1217's avatar

While everyone else in the room is laughing hysterically, I’m usually the one that gasps and says something like, “Oh my gosh, that poor guy. His balls are gonna hurt for days!”

chyna's avatar

I’ve seen the commercials and can barely watch it. I am grabbing the remote to change the channel. I do not think it is funny, but apparently others do.

spacemonkey's avatar

we are becoming increasingly desensitized by these kind of shows.they won’t stop till we have live executions.i have never found these type of shows entertaining.

MrsDufresne's avatar

This is a good question. I have often wondered the same thing myself. Like on those video shows, people laugh when painful things happen to others. I do not understand it. The only thing I could think of, is that the laughter is a twisted expression of relief that they are not experiencing the same thing.

pjanaway's avatar

Its very funny seeing people get hurt. Especially when they add those sound effects in.. LOL

Polly_Math's avatar

I think it’s often a defense mechanism.

dpworkin's avatar

It’s called schadenfreude, and it is one of the less pleasant aspects of human nature. However, being human, it is also quite common.

Christian95's avatar

can someone tell me if the most people who laugh at this are men
If it is so that I think that men find this kind of things funny because they from prehistorical times compete with each other for every thing possible so when they see a “rival” “defeated“they feel good because they are better than those “geniuses”.
As a conclusion I think we laugh because there’s something in our brain remained from prehistorical times and I think that will be very hard to get rid of that.

Cotton101's avatar

Friday, was playing golf with 3 very good friends. Was walking across the fairway to hit my ball as it was so wet, we could not get off the cart paths. Was walking down an incline and my feet went straight up and just busted my ass, big time. Just laid there for about 5 minutes…REALLY HURTING….my “good friends” were just laughing their asses off! Good grief, what are friends for…loll

To answer your question Ms P, positive people are always looking for something positive about every situation. Even if it is at your expense.

Back to my fall, if one them had fell, I would have laughted my ass off at them also…that is what friends are for…loll

phillis's avatar

@pdworkin – could you elaborate, please? Or provide a link? I can copy and paste it onto a search engine box if you don’t care to.

@Polly_Math – How is this a defense mechanism, please?

phillis's avatar

@chyna – that is excatly my response! If I can’t grab the remote in time I avert my eyes because it is too painful to watch.

dpworkin's avatar

A link? To what? It’s a word in the dictionary.

phillis's avatar

I meant a link to an article discussing it, as opposed to your writing it all down.

dpworkin's avatar

Here is a very detailed link

UScitizen's avatar

It isn’t. You are very confused.

asmonet's avatar

@UScitizen: How helpful. /eyeroll

stranger_in_a_strange_land's avatar

Schadenfreude is happiness over the misfortune of someone you dislike. This television program is showing things happening to complete strangers, a different thing. I think in this case it’s more a matter of people laughing that it is not themselves getting hurt, a sort of gesture of relief. I’m guessing in this area, since I personally don’t find it funny.

phillis's avatar

@pdworkin – Much appreciated! I figured you could choose a better link than I could.

@asmonet – Thank you. You spared me from saying it.

@stranger_in_a_strange_land – Excellent, noticing the difference! I will keep that in mind when reading up on this. GA.

Polly_Math's avatar

@phillis “In psychoanalytic theory, reaction formation is a defensive process (defense mechanism) in which anxiety-producing or unacceptable emotions and impulses are mastered by exaggeration of the directly opposing tendency.” Also this seems like what’s described as mood-incongruent affect, when the outward emotions do not match, and mask, the inner feelings. Then again, some people are just jerks and take pleasure in others’ misfortunes.

dpworkin's avatar

Reaction Formation is when, for instance, a deeply closeted homosexual beats up other homosexuals. This has nothing to do with Reaction Formation.

phillis's avatar

Okay! Looks like I’ve got my work cut out for me, right guys? Thank you, everyone, for your responses so far. Much appreciated!

Shemarq's avatar

I’ve always wondered that myself. Even in my family if someone is hurt, noone will laugh at first until we all know that they are ok, then the jokes began. One example is when I fell down the stairs. My husband took good care of me because I twisted my knee. But a couple days later when I was feeling better, he said I sounded like the Eddie Murphy character falling down the stairs with all the sound effects. I thought it was pretty funny myself. As far as seeing it happen to strangers, you can “feel their pain” so to speak (aka any time there is an incident where some guy gets hit in the balls, every guy watching it will crimp their legs together). But the laughter might be some kind of defense mechanism because it didn’t happen to you.

phillis's avatar

Great, Shemarq! Thank you :)

Polly_Math's avatar

@pdworkin I do think it is more specifically mood-incongruent affect. But I think this could be considered a case of of mild reaction formation.

Vunessuh's avatar

Well, here’s the thing…what exactly do you mean by getting hurt?
There’s a difference between tripping and scuffing your knee as opposed to falling and breaking your arm.
If someone I know gets hurt, but finds it funny themselves, I’ll laugh along with them.
But like Shemarq said, only if we know they’re alright first.
Then, I hop on this wonderful thing called the internet where I can make acquaintances with thousands of stupidos.
How can you NOT laugh at something like this:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCpdWNENafc
(Especially the person at the end. Bahaha)

If I ever decide to be as stupid as these people and do something like roller blade off the roof of my house, I hope to God you’ll laugh at me.

As far as that television show goes, I’ve never heard of it, but I would be absolutely appalled if they think showing a child getting kicked in the face is alright. I would be more so appalled by the idiot sitting next to me laughing at it.

Pandora's avatar

I think sometimes it depends on how hurt we are talking about. I’ve even laughed when I’ve fallen and gotten hurt because I was being careless. So long as the injury isn’t severe. Most of the time it has to do with irony. Like I still remember seeing this little boy at a park yell at his sister to stick close because she doesn’t know where she is going. She was trying to tell him he was headed into a post but he was busy looking back yelling at her and telling her to be quiet and stay close. Before he knew it he smacked right into a pole. He didn’t get seriously hurt, just his pride. Couldn’t help but laugh because his little sister was more aware of her surroundings. Irony.
Or maybe I laugh because I’m a douche. LMAO still.

phillis's avatar

V, I can’t laugh at someone doing something as stupid as that, but I can marvel at the ignorance.

@Pandora!! You behave. Bad girl! :D:D

Vunessuh's avatar

Marvel = laugh.
It’s that silent laugh within your heart. :D

phillis's avatar

you might have a point there, v!

Pandora's avatar

@Vunessuh I agree. I can’t help but laugh at extreme stupidity. Some people are old enough to know what they are doing is stupid but they do it anyway. But I will never laugh at someone I think got seriously hurt. But I can’t help to think of Darwin in some cases.
@phillis I will try but sometimes its hard. :D

phillis's avatar

Don’t any of you guys find it amazing that only ONE person out of everyone on this thread said that it was funny to see someone get hurt? I mean the serious kind of hurt, such as what this new TV show runs clips of.

Pandora's avatar

I think most people assume that on shows they only show clips where people didn’t get hurt seriously. Sometimes it looks like it but they are ok. Like funniest home videos. You always see the people in the show as they show the clips. I don’t think people will send in their videos is someone got hurt really bad where they ended up in the hospital. At least I hope not.

Vunessuh's avatar

@Pandora Never claimed to laugh at someone who is seriously hurt. Like I said, there’s a difference between scuffing your knee and breaking a bone. When I watch World’s Most Shocking Videos Ever Caught On Tape or whatever it’s called that shit is serious and I’m more so in agony hoping everyone will be alright rather than laughing at their misfortune.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with laughing at stupidity as long as nobody died or anything. That’s a whole nother story.
Actually, show me that video of Saddam being hanged again. I might laugh at that one more time.

Shegrin's avatar

There is (hopefully) a huge part of each of us that hopes the injured person is okay, no matter how we react. With that in mind, I prefer to (thanks Katt Williams) make sure there’s no blood, no protruding bones, no blocked airways, and get my obligatory seven. Most injuries occur when someone is showing off because they have become too comfortable with the task at hand. All you have to do is lose focus for one second and !BAM! This week’s winning video.

Silhouette's avatar

Emotional overload? All the pent up emotions come out in a hysterical laugh? Just guessing.

Pandora's avatar

@Vunessuh Sorry I didn’t state that correctly. I didn’t mean to infer that you did. I was just stating that “I” would never laugh at someone seriously hurt.

Vunessuh's avatar

Gotcha. No worries. :)

Shegrin's avatar

Hopefully, nobody would submit a video wherein someone was terribly hurt or killed. Great. Does this mean we need to implement a law to do background checks when you buy a video camera?

Vunessuh's avatar

@Shegrin Well no, they can’t show stuff like that on television.
Well I mean they can on Real TV and stuff like that, but not on a show like America’s Funniest Home videos. Damn, that would be in poor taste. The show Phillis is referring to is ALREADY in poor taste. They would be kicked off the air in no time if they tried encouraging laughter at someone’s death.

daemonelson's avatar

Schadenfreude. Quite amusing, really.

I’ve found if it’s something happening in real life (by that I mean near me, as the event is occurring) then it’s more of a nervous reaction. But otherwise, on TV shows such as funniest home videos, which I tend to call ‘that show with videos of people getting hurt and we laugh’, I find myself incredibly amused by people doing stupid things and then being shocked by hurting themselves.

I think this may be some kind of inbuilt demotivation to do dumb things which may cause us to hurt ourselves. Lest we be laughed at by our peers.

windex's avatar

I “think” if you see a coworker/friend fall down, or hit a body part somewhere or do something that looks like they got hurt/injured you would not laugh.

But if you see the same person, trip, or hit a body part or do something similar but you know that nothing serious happened, then you laugh. Because it’s a scientifically proven fact that other people’s pain IS funny (ok I just made that up)

BUT! it also depends on the person, if he/she starts laughing right away, then you laugh with them, since they made it okay. Maybe because that person knows that he/she did something stupid.

also, depending on the age of the person, if it’s an old person, you don’t want to laugh at that, and you won’t, but you will laugh at a kid to make him/her laugh and stop him/her from crying?

i don’t know.

asmonet's avatar

@stranger_in_a_strange_land: Actually, I can find nothing that says schadenfreude deals with someone you dislike, it just seems to be enjoyment of another persons misfortune period. Your connection to them is irrelevant.

As for the original question I don’t laugh personally at random injuries unless they are particularly exaggerated and cartoonish in how they are received. And besides that, there are a few people in my life, like my brother and a coworker who no matter what happens to them – I laugh uncontrollably. They have the best spastic reactions, noises, curses, whatevers I’ve ever seen. It makes them flat out hilarious. I think within a second of someone sustaining an injury, you know if it’s serious or not, and in that same time frame you can laugh or show concern. I think most people show the right emotion when it’s necessary.

Since this is a TV show, we know the participants came to no major harm. Usually, you don’t watch real people die or get horribly mutilated on broadcast. We know in this instance it’s safe to laugh at the ridiculousness of being who we are. It’s like when a cat who is graceful, lithe and agile falls off the kitchen counter top. It’s unexpected and out of character – so = funny. On top of that, in a survival sense just a guess I’d think a member of the group being injured would be a significant stressor almost immediately affecting others. The realization that they are fine a fraction of a second later combined with laughter reduces that stress, releases endorphins and puts the group at ease again.

Besides, we humans think too much of ourselves and on some level we all know it. Watching humans as a group lose their dignity, in silly ways knocks us down a few pegs. We’re allowed to laugh, it’s fuckin’ funny.

People kill jokes when they need explaining. :P

Kelly_Obrien's avatar

I agree with @Excalibur… Many people have been broken at a young age by parents, siblings and friends. It then becomes defensive by nature to laugh at others when they trip or fall, rather than feel for them.

toomuchcoffee911's avatar

Apologies if I am repeating what others have said I guess people are so relieved that it didn’t happen to them that they laugh.

LeopardGecko's avatar

Most of the time these people get hurt on these shows it’s because they were doing something stupid. That’s funny.

Mat74UK's avatar

I’ve just been out into town with the family and due to the snow we were driving really slowly when a young girl of about 15 walked out onto the path slightly ahead of us. She then slipped, both feet when from under her and she ended up on her backside!
All four of us in the car laughed.
Just though I’d mention that but I couldn’t tell you why we all laughed at that young lady losing her dignity like that.

Cruiser's avatar

For me it would be a nervous laugh acknowledging the many times a similar stupid move cost me a few tears. But I agree with @phillis in that to dedicate a TV show to human pain, suffering and embarrassment is a sad commentary on society’s thirst for new cheap thrills.

ubersiren's avatar

It is natural to laugh when someone is mildly hurt in a funny situation, but I have seen folks who laugh at someone who is seriously injured, and I just don’t understand it. All I can figure is that they are of lower intelligence and cannot process the value of another’s life. These are the same people who laugh at disabled people, the elderly, and animal abuse. They’re stupid and deranged. A child being kicked in the face by a horse can be deadly. I don’t know how that’s funny.

SABOTEUR's avatar

I don’t have a clue about the human nature aspect.

I think the question is interesting though because of the current question over whether violent video games make kids immune to violence.

Did a healthy dose of The Three Stooges as a kid make me immune to people getting hurt?

Symbeline's avatar

I think it’s a defense mechanism produced to avoid shock or trauma. When I was little, this old dude died of a heart attack, and not quite understanding what death was, or at least what it meant for the majority at that point, I started laughing when I saw his corpse.

I think laughing during such occurrences is like carrying a fish in a plastic bag until you get it safe in its aquarium.

There’s also the idea that these kinds of television shows are set up so that most of what is disturbing is removed or edited. I see plenty of these shows where, by all rights, someone should be dismembered, or bleeding all over the place, but they never are, or never film it. So what’s left after that? Just some ridiculous looking crash…as well, most of these shows, at least American ones, will only show accidents and such that people got out of…it might be relief laughter.

I wasn’t laughing while watching Faces of Death, even if apparently, it’s all fake.

In real life it’s also extremely different, The contrast between reality and entertainment is evident, whether what you see on TV is real or not. And with the profession you have, I’m sure you know that better than I do.

Or, perhaps YOU don’t laugh because you’ve seen this first hand plenty of times?

But, as for the TV shows; it remains that they’re made to be watchable. In real life it’s always funny if the person isn’t seriously hurt; but if they got a tire iron sticking out of their sides, it’s usually more omfg and panicky.

Vunessuh's avatar

@Symbeline Is it horrible that I laughed at your first paragraph?
I totally chuckled.
And very good answer btw.

Symbeline's avatar

@Vunessuh My mom got all pissed at me when I laughed at the corpse. But fuck, I was like four. XD

phillis's avatar

Thank you everyone. I got some amazing answers! I am so glad I had a community to ask. I appreciate your thoughts on it. You, too, Kelly.

Dr_Lawrence's avatar

Decent empathetic people often feel immediately uncomforatable when they see someone else get hurt and may laugh because of their discomfort.

People who truly enjoy seeing others get hurt and seek out situations where that occurs or is depicted are either totally desensitized by repeated exposure to violence and abuse and should seek psycho-therapeutic help OR they are despicable, insensitive people who should be avoid like the plague by decent, empathetic people.

Polly_Math's avatar

@pdworkin Thanks your feedback. It’s been awhile since I’ve dealt with the Freudian defense mechanisms, and I think I ‘formed my reaction’ without doing the proper research.

dpworkin's avatar

I’ve done a lot of primary-source reading in psychodynamics.

NUNYA's avatar

I’ve been reading all of the answers and they all are good ones! I too believe it is a spontaneous reaction. Because as you are walking/running towards the person to find out if they are ok or not is when I generally giggle or laugh. Generally with one hand over my mouth in “Awwwwwww” of what just happened. UNLESS as Vunessah stated, you can see that it is a serious injury. Great Question Sis!!!

phillis's avatar

I’ve had that conflict of emotions a few times too, Sis. Hubby is forever doing idiotic things. A few nights ago he did something really stupid, then immediately after that, accidentally dropped a DVD, the corner of which hit the top of his unshoed foot. I couldn’t help it! I fell apart in helpless laughter :D

Vunessuh's avatar

@phillis You’re such an asshole. Why would you laugh at someone’s severed toe from a DVD? God forbid that ever happens to you and I laugh. I mean, make sure the DVD isn’t damaged before you proceed laughing at least. Sheesh.

phillis's avatar

HAHAHAHAHA!! “severed”, she says :D
I made sure to go get a replacement DVD, with his debit card, while he was getting sewn up in the ER.

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