27 Incongruity Examples

incongruity examples and definition, explained below

Incongruity occurs when something is out of place or not in harmony with our expectations.

To manufacture incongruity, we simply need to bring two things together that don’t typically belong alongside one another. The juxtaposition of the two elements leads to what we call cognitive dissonance.

Common situations where we might see incongruity include:

  • Humor: It is the essence of many jokes, where the gap between our expectations and the actual punchline can be amusing.
  • Storylines: In stories, a sudden incongruous plot twist might re-engage the audience. However, if a film presents too much incongruity, we might find the plot incoherent and impossible to follow.
  • Products: We experience incongruity when we purchase a product and it doesn’t function the way we expect, leading to disappointment and reputational damage for the brand.

Here are some examples.

Incongruity Examples

1. A Fish Out Of Water

Cause: Environmental dissonance

Ordinarily, we expect fish to be in water, which is their natural environment. By placing a fish outside of water, we’ve created cognitive dissonance since it does not align with our expectations or the norm. Because it’s the location that surprises us, we might call this an example of ‘environmental dissonance’.

2. A Snowman In The Desert

Cause: Environmental dissonance

A snowman in the desert presents two contradictory elements. The key concept here is that snowmen are associated with cold climates and not the hot and dry conditions of a desert. By putting these two together, we introduce an unexpected mismatch that piques curiosity and interest.

3. A Knight In Modern-Day New York

Cause: Temporal dissonance

A knight in modern-day New York represents temporal dissonance. Knights are associated with medieval times, a world of castles, chivalry and horse-mounted combat while modern-day New York symbolizes a technologically advanced era of skyscrapers, subways and fast-paced urban life. It’s the clash of these two distinct time periods and settings that makes the situation incongruous.

Incongruity in Humor

4. A Chicken Attending A Seminar On How To Cross The Road

Cause: Behavioral dissonance

A chicken attending a seminar causes dissonance on two levels. First, chickens typically aren’t capable of conceptual reasoning or attending seminars. Second, the seminar topic references the old joke “Why did the chicken cross the road?”, introducing more dissonance by suggesting a simple creature might premeditate such an act.

5. Vampires at a Garlic Festival

Cause: Cultural dissonance

Vampires at a garlic festival is incongruous due to the widespread cultural belief that garlic wards off vampires. In that context, vampires attending a garlic festival is an unexpected and contrasting scenario. This cognitive dissnance derives from reversing a common vampire archetype.

6. A Ghost Attending A Life Insurance Seminar

Cause: Existential dissonance

We experience confusion in this instance because ghosts, as the disembodied spirits of the deceased, have no need for life insurance. This example challenges typical conventions and expectations around life insurance and its intended audience, creating a humorous juxtaposition. It’s an absurd scenario as life insurance is meant for the living, not the dead or disembodied spirits.

7. A Zebra’s Attempt To Play Hide And Seek

Cause: Biological dissonance

A zebra attempting to play hide and seek is an incongruous scenario because of how distinct zebras are due to their unique black and white stripes which makes them easily recognizable. Hide and seek is a game predicated on the basis of blending and merging with surroundings to evade being found, making it almost impossible for such an easily identifiable animal to play successfully. This situation challenges the norms and thought processes behind a typical game of hide and seek.

Incongruity in Marketing

8. Selling Sunscreen In Antarctica

Cause: Contextual dissonance

Selling sunscreen in Antarctica represents incongruity due to the extreme environmental conditions where high levels of sunlight are relatively less common. Sunscreen is typically associated with the prevention of sunburn from direct sunlight, thus it seems out of place to sell it in a location that is mostly frozen and severely cold most of the year. This contextual dissonance creates an unexpected form of mismatch.

9. Promoting High Heels For Mountain Climbing

Cause: Functional dissonance

The notion of promoting high heels for mountain climbing involves conflicting functionalities. High heels are traditionally associated with fashion and formal events, while mountain climbing requires practicality and safety, usually addressed by sturdy, flat-soled footwear. This functional dissonance between the product, in this case, the high heels, and the activity, mountain climbing, leads to a disconcerting incongruity.

10. A Winter Coat Brand Using A Desert Photoshoot

Cause: Location dissonance

A winter coat brand using a desert photoshoot is a setting where the product is not used for its intended purpose, causing us to pay attention – which might be what the brand wants, to get your eyes on their advertisements! Deserts are generally perceived as hot and arid places, whereas winter coats are designed for cold climates. The juxtaposition of these elements creates a visually striking, though logically inconsistent, image.

11. Marketing A Book On “How To Quit Reading”

Cause: Conceptual dissonance

Marketing a book on “How to Quit Reading” encompasses incongruity, as the product contradicts its intended purpose. The paradox lies in the fact that to gain information from the book, one must engage in the very activity they seek to quit. The concept therefore becomes confusing, as it conflicts with common sense.

12. Selling Ice Cubes In The Arctic

Cause: Environmental dissonance

Selling ice cubes in the Arctic presents a situation of redundancy. The Arctic is a region defined by its frozen landscape, making the notion of selling ice there seem absurdly unnecessary. This seemingly pointless act against the backdrop of the icy Arctic environment creates an incongruity that is both humorous and thought-provoking.

13. Selling A “Do-It-Yourself” Kit That’s Already Assembled

Cause: Functional dissonance

Selling a “Do-It-Yourself” Kit that’s already assembled goes against the fundamental concept of DIY kits, creating an incongruity. DIY kits are intended to provide the buyer with an experience of building or creating something themselves, yet an already assembled kit negates this possibility. The product and its proposed application are fundamentally mismatched.

Incongruity in Products

14. An Inflatable Dartboard

Cause: Practical dissonance

An inflatable dartboard is entirely impractical. Dartboards are designed to receive darts thrown with some force, but an inflatable material would likely puncture upon contact, rendering it useless for its intended purpose. This clash between the nature of the object and its usage forms a clear cognitive dissonance.

15. A Waterproof Teabag

Cause: Practical dissonance

A waterproof teabag introduces an incongruity rooted in its impractical design. The basic function of a teabag is to allow the transfer of tea’s flavor to hot water. If it’s waterproof, it wouldn’t allow this interaction, defeating the entire purpose of a teabag.

16. A Left-Handed Screwdriver

Cause: Semantic dissonance

A left-handed screwdriver stands as a representation of incongruity arising from flawed logic. In actuality, screwdrivers aren’t dependent on the user’s dominant hand. To assign such an attribute to this universally applicable tool creates us to make a doubletake, which is at the core of this joke.

17. A Paper Umbrella

Cause: Material dissonance

An umbrella’s main function is to protect its user from precipitation. Given paper’s vulnerability to water, a paper umbrella wouldn’t serve its primary function, thus establishing a contradiction that makes us think twice.

18. A Wooden Frying Pan

Cause: Functional dissonance

Frying pans are typically made from materials with high heat resistance, such as steel or iron, while wood is flammable and unsuitable for withstanding high temperatures. This mismatch between the intended functionality and the material choice gives rise to an incongruity in this example.

19. A Fireproof Matchstick

Cause: Conceptual dissonance

A fireproof matchstick creates an unexpected event due to the inherent contradiction in being both fireproof and capable of creating fire. The matchstick’s fundamental purpose is to ignite a flame when struck, making the concept of it being fireproof ontologically incompatible. This direct contradiction between what’s expected and what’s presented manifests an obvious absurdity.

Incongruity in Storylines

20. A Vampire Who’s A Passionate Sunbather

Cause: Cultural dissonance

A story about a vampire who’s a passionate sunbather presents a clear incongruity. In prevailing folklore and literature, vampires are nocturnal creatures who are harmed or destroyed by sunlight. Thus, the idea of a vampire sunbathing contradicts these established norms, creating an intriguingly omissive dissonance.

21. A Mermaid Afraid Of Water

Cause: Conceptual dissonance

A mermaid afraid of water contests common knowledge about mermaids. Typically, mermaids are aquatic creatures, living, moving, and thriving in water. The prospect of a mermaid being aquaphobic directly challenges these assumptions, creating an unexpected situation.

22. A Superhero With A Fear Of Heights

Cause: Behavioral dissonance

Archetypal superheroes are usually portrayed as virtually fearless individuals, with many possessing powers including flight or scaling buildings. Therefore, having a superhero who fears heights contradicts our expectations of what defines a superhero, offering a unique storyline that catches our attention.

23. A Time Traveler Who’s Always Late

Cause: Temporal dissonance

The idea of a time traveler who’s always late provokes an incongruity. Our conventional understanding of time travel suggests that one would have the ability to arrive at any moment in time desired, thus eliminating the likelihood of tardiness. Hence, a time traveler consistently late contradicts this expectation, generating an interesting scebario.

24. A Western Film Set In Outer Space

Cause: Genre dissonance

A Western film set in outer space introduces incongruity through its juxtaposition of two widely disparate settings. Western films are traditionally associated with the 19th century American frontier, featuring iconic elements like cowboys, horses, and dramatic landscapes, whereas outer space suggests a futuristic, technologically advanced context. This contrast creates an interesting and unexpected scenario within the movie’s narrative.

25. The Cyberpunk Genre

Cause: Genre dissonance

The Cyberpunk genre inherently encompasses incongruity. This genre juxtaposes two opposing elements: high-tech advancements, typified by futuristic cities and artificial intelligence, with low-life societal structures characterized by dystopian societal order and grungy settings. The contrasting elements paint a jumbled and unexpected image of future societies, wherein technological progress does not necessarily equate to societal improvement.

26. An Action Film Where the Hero is a Pacifist

Cause: Character dissonance

An action film where the hero is a pacifist presents an unexpected event. Action films typically involve intense sequences of highly physical confrontations, battles, or significant feats of athleticism. To place a pacifist, someone who believes in peace and avoids conflict, into this aggressive context, contradicts our standard understanding of an action hero. This was done to effect with Brad Pitt’s character in the film Bullet Train.

27. A Documentary About a Fictional Event

Cause: Format dissonance

A documentary about a fictional event introduces an unexpected element. Documentaries are a form of non-fiction storytelling, typically presenting factual information or following genuine events or people. By focusing on a fictional event, it reverses the traditional role of a documentary, causing a unique form of incongruity that challenges our understandings of documentary storytelling.


Incongruity stands as a powerful tool for eliciting interest, amusement, and engagement, precisely because of its capacity to offset our conventional expectations and norms. It relies on a range of potential causes such as environmental, temporal, behavioral, and genre dissonance among others, creating unexpected contrasts that prompt our attention.

The delightful paradox of this phenomenon lies in pitting together elements from diverse situations, times, or ideologies that drastically differ from one another.

For writers and comedians, understanding and harnessing the power of incongruity can lead to rich, imaginative work that challenges the audience’s perception and sparks laughter or intrigue. Whether it is through crisscrossing time and space, or infusing characters with contradictory traits, this technique serves as a creative engine for storytelling and humor.

The art and science of juxtaposing the unexpected unlocks new perspectives and fosters deeper engagement, ensuring that your work resonates long after the initial surprise wears off.

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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