I read somewhere that laughter is a social phenomena. If you’re sitting at home alone, reading a funny book, a lot of times you smile and perhaps occasionally emit a giggle or two. When a friend is making jokes? You laugh. Even just hearing laughter can cause you to laugh:
Psychology researchers jumped on the new phenomenon of “canned” laughter, confirming that laugh tracks do indeed increase audience laughter and the audience’s rating of the humorousness of the comedy material, attributing the effect to sometimes baroque mechanisms (deindividuation; release restraint mediated by imitation; social facilitation; emergence of social norms, etc). Decades later, we learned that the naked sound of laughter itself can evoke laughter – that you don’t need a joke.
Recorded laughter produced by a “laugh box”, a small, battery-operated record player from a novelty store, was sufficient to trigger real laughter among my undergraduate students in a classroom setting. On their first exposure to the laughter, nearly half of the students reported that they responded with laughter themselves. (More than 90% reported smiling on first exposure.) However, the effectiveness of the stimulus declined with repetition. By the 10th exposure, about 75% of the students rated the laugh stimulus as “obnoxious”, a reminder of the sometimes derisive nature of laughter, especially when repetitive and invariable.
What’s interesting here is that laughter is being used as a social stimulus, and has a very clear “stimulus – response” function: you hear the sound of laughter, it makes you laugh. I would love to see a study of the network behavior of cascades of laughter.
Laughing with brings the pleasure of acceptance, in-group feeling, and bonding. But laughing at is jeering and ridicule, targeting outsiders who look or act differently, pounding down the nail that sticks up, shaping them up, or driving them away. Being laughed at can be a very serious, even dangerous business.
Laughter is a rich source of information about complex social relationships, if you know where to look. Learning to “read” laughter is particularly valuable because laughter is involuntary and hard to fake, providing an uncensored, honest account about what people really think about each other, and you.
What is the mechanism in the brain that translates this? Do other animals laugh? Sophie Scott suggests that we do. If anyone knows of any studies of the mechanisms of translating laughter to social input, let me know!
(Another super interesting video here)