Think about things that make you laugh. Jokes? Comedies? Cat videos? Other people laughing? What about funny looking people, cultural traditions you’re not familiar with, or someone getting bullied? I’m assuming that the majority of you would openly admit that the first four subjects often induce laughter, but most individuals will have a difficult time admitting to laughing at the three last subjects. However, though laughter tends to be associated with positive emotions, its function extends beyond recognizing hilarity. In fact, laughter has served as an extremely influential, cross-cultural social mechanism throughout history, and its prompting is not always good-natured. By compiling research in psychology, sociology, and history, Guardian columnist Robert Provine has addressed the power of laughter in societies across the world, exploring the concept that “laughter is more about relationships than humour” .
First of all, it’s important to realize that laughter is contagious, or as I like to think of it, socially transmittable. Since we as humans are social creatures, we are susceptible to the emotions of other humans, and laughter is a particularly emotive gesture. Laughter is essentially a vocalization of a strong emotion–be it happiness, surprise, or malevolence–that is meant to be shared with other people. This emotional vocalization, however, is capable of losing its socially purposeful bearing, and can become borderline pathological in rare cases involving masses of people laughing uncontrollably. Provine recounts the laughter epidemic in Tanzania in 1962:
What began as an isolated fit of laughter in a group of 12-to 18-year-old schoolgirls rapidly rose to epidemic proportions. Contagious laughter propagated from one individual to the next, eventually infecting adjacent communities. Like an influenza outbreak, the laughter epidemic was so severe that it required the closing of at least 14 schools and afflicted about 1,000 people. Fluctuating in intensity, it lasted for around two and a half years. A psychogenic, hysterical origin of the epidemic was established after excluding alternatives such as toxic reaction and encephalitis .
The “psychogenic and hysterical origin” of this laughter epidemic implies that the epidemic arose from social psychology and neurobiology gone wrong. The commonplace psychological mechanism of laughter has such a strong social influence that it can spread like wildfire when socially transmitted in a conducive environment. But why does laughter have so much power over our psyches? According to the psychologist Dr. Greg Markway, “Laughing releases serotonin, increases T cells, increases endorphins and improves the immune system” . This goes to say that laughter is biologically rewarding: it releases chemicals that make us feel good, and it helps prevent disease. By evaluating the content of Provine’s account of laughter and considering the biological processes that underlie giggling, I hypothesize that serotonin (a neurochemical responsible for mood, emotional regulation and numerous physiological functions, among other roles) plays a significant role in the contagion of laughter–from a conversation between a few people to country-wide laughing epidemics–because it helps us experience positive emotions in social settings. Too much of a good thing, however, isn’t always good: it’s possible to have too much serotonin , and this just might provide a further explanation for the widespread hysteria of laughing epidemics.
Now that we’ve clarified the neurobiological underpinnings of laughter’s influential nature, we can address some ways in which humans use laughter to manipulate social situations. Provine comments on the human reaction to canned laughter on TV sitcoms, and how hearing other people laugh can make us chuckle:
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 .
Television programs have successfully monopolized this psychological strategy of inducing laughter with laughter. Since laughing puts people in better moods, they’ll be more likely to associate positive feelings with TV shows that strategically and systematically feature canned laughter.
While canned laughter is pretty much inconsequential, other forms of laughter can be socially manipulated to promulgate cruelty. Provine makes the point that laughter is a very powerful social cue, and isn’t always used in a positive manner.
If you think laughter is benign, be aware that laughter is present during the worst atrocities, from murder, rape and pillage in antiquity to the present. Laughter has been present at the entertainments of public executions and torture. On street corners around the world, laughing at the wrong person or at the wrong time can get you killed…The killers at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, were laughing as they strolled through classrooms murdering their classmates. Laughter accompanies ethnic violence and insult, from Kosovo to Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
The subjects from the quote above are obviously not jokes, yet people have still made them laughing matters. Though it’s highly unlikely that any of you readers have personally laughed while murdering someone, many people are still guilty for laughing at things that really aren’t funny, like making fun of someone’s culture, snickering to encourage bullying, or guffawing at a fight in a high school hallway. So why do we laugh at things in an act of cruelty the same way we laugh at things we find humorous? To address this conundrum, it’s important to make the distinction that laughing at someone is very different from laughing with someone. Laughing with another person can affirm a positive relationship, but laughing at someone conveys a harsh social message, such as exclusion. According to Provine,
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.
If a group of people is laughing at you rather than with you, there’s a strong possibility that they don’t think too highly of you. This can be very upsetting, as humans prefer social approval to social rejection.
On a lighter note, laughter’s association with humor hasn’t been forgotten. People on dating websites still want a partner with “a good sense of humor” and “a nice laugh.” This suggests that laughter is valuable, and might add another element of connection to an intimate relationship. According to Provine,
Laughter and humour are highly valued in the sexual marketplace. In 3,745 personal ads published by heterosexual males and females in eight US national newspapers on 28 April 1996, men offered “sense of humour” (or “humorous”) and women requested it. Women couldn’t care less whether their ideal male partner laughs or not – they want a male who makes them laugh. Women sought humour more than twice as often as they offered it.
Overall, laughter clearly has a stronghold over societies, historically and cross-culturally. It always seems to convey a strong emotion or a social message, and usually receives a reaction. Laughter is its own interpersonal language, and is often revealing of social truths.