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Kelling, G.W. (1971). An Empirical Investigation of Freud's Theory of Jokes. Psychoanal. Rev., 58(3):473-485.

(1971). Psychoanalytic Review, 58(3):473-485

An Empirical Investigation of Freud's Theory of Jokes

George W. Kelling, Ph.D.

This paper reports tests of four hypotheses derived from Freud's theory of jokes. The theory is complex, and therefore this introduction will present only those aspects of the theory necessary for understanding the derivations of the hypotheses tested.

A joke is distinguished from, say, irony or whimsy, by the fact that it has a punch line or point. Laughter at or pleasure from a joke derives from two sources. Jokes result from and are made possible by the use of techniques of primary process thinking, e.g., displacement of accent, condensation. This usage reflects a release from the “burden of intellectual upbringing”6j and a return to childish sources of pleasure, like nonsense.6f Normal repressions against primary process thinking are lifted, and part of laughter at a joke is the release of energy that normally would have maintained the repression. The meaning or point of the joke may be seen as similar to “secondary elaboration” in dreams—it justifies and saves from criticism the nonsense or illogic that is basic.6g

The second source of laughter at a joke is the release of energy that would otherwise have been maintaining repressions of unacceptable impulses, such as sexual, aggressive and death impulses. A joke has a purpose or content, which may be an expression of one of these unacceptable impulses. The expression of this impulse arouses in the individual a “readiness for inhibition.”6h

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