Want to Get to Know Someone? Make 'em Laugh.

Want to Get to Know Someone? Make 'em Laugh.
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We don't laugh just because something is funny. For that matter, we rarely laugh just because something is funny.

In the early 1980s, Robert Provine, a psychology professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and a few collaborators observed -- or, more accurately, creepily eavesdropped on -- 1,200 real-world episodes of laughter. They found that in only a fifth of instances people laughed at something even remotely funny.

"Most of the laughter seemed to follow rather banal remarks, such as 'Look, it's Andre,' 'Are you sure?' and 'It was nice meeting you too,'" Provine described in American Scientist. He continued:

Even... the funniest of the 1,200 pre-laugh comments were not necessarily howlers: "You don't have to drink, just buy us drinks," "She's got a sex disorder - she doesn't like sex," and "Do you date within your species?" Mutual playfulness, in-group feeling and positive emotional tone - not comedy - mark the social settings of most naturally occurring laughter.

"Provine’s discoveries suggest that laughter is inherently social, that at its core it’s a form of communication and not just a byproduct of finding something funny," Peter McGraw and Joel Warner remarked last year in Slate.

And that makes perfect sense. After all, the chuckle and guffaw were around long before sitcoms ruled weeknight television or comedians cracked jokes in front of howling audiences.

More than likely, laughter serves as an evolved bonding mechanism, a "social vocalization of the human animal," as Provine put it. We laugh, especially in social settings, to subtly broadcast our desire to be part of the group.

This educated postulation provides context for a new study published last week to the journal Human Nature. Researchers based out of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London as well as Oxford's Department of Experimental Psychology found that laughter makes people more likely to disclose intimate information.

Humans reveal personal information about themselves every day, but exactly what is revealed deponds on a variety of factors: who we're talking to, our mood, our level of intoxication, for example. Laughing seems to loosen the tongue, as well.

The researchers recruited 112 subjects and randomly assigned them to watch either a performance by stand-up comedian Michael McIntyre (who apparently the Brits find hilarious), an excerpt from the “Jungles” episode of the BBC series Planet Earth, or a golf instruction video. Subjects viewed the 10-minute videos in groups of four. Those who watched the comedy clip laughed vastly more than those who watched the other clips.

Here's what happened next:

In an ostensibly unrelated experiment on “social communication,” participants were instructed to sit in separate corners of the room and were given a (randomly assigned) piece of colored card (red, blue, green, or yellow). They were asked to show the card to the other participants and to remember which individuals held which colored cards. They were then asked to face away from each other and to complete a questionnaire which instructed them to compose a message for one of the members of the group...

In the message, subjects were told to write down five pieces of information which would be shared with one of the other three participants. They would then be able to interact with the person. Later on, two independent observers read all of the pieces of information and rated them for intimacy on a scale of 1 to 10.

On average, the information provided by those who watched the comedy video was rated as more intimate (5.24) than the information given by those who watched the golf (4.04) or the Planet Earth (4.54) videos.

Examples of more intimate disclosure statements were "In January I broke my collarbone falling off a pole while pole dancing," and "I'm currently living in squalor (with mice!)." Less intimate statements went something like "I am at Worcester College in my first year," or “I love eating different foods from around the world."

The researchers theorize that endorphins -- morphine-like chemicals released by the body's pituitary gland -- may play a role in laughter's apparent intimacy-boosting effects.

"Given laughter’s ability to trigger endorphin activation and the role of endorphins in the formation of social bonds, laughter may increase willingness to disclose intimate information because the opioid effect of endorphins makes individuals more relaxed about what they communicate," they write.

Interestingly, the laughing subjects didn't seem to be aware that they were more willing to disclose.

"It might be that the endorphin release triggered by laughing relaxes people into feeling like they are revealing little and this in fact encourages them to reveal a lot," lead researcher Alan Gray explained to RCScience.

It seems that softening a situation with laughter may be a good way to get to know somebody better, or, for the more mischievous, a potential key to coaxing out unflattering information.

Source: Alan W. Gray, Brian Parkinson, Robin I. Dunbar. "Laughter’s Influence on the Intimacy of Self-Disclosure." Human Nature. March 2015. DOI:     10.1007/s12110-015-9225-8

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