To be capable of laughing at oneself is usually considered a mark of good character and the foundation of a robust sense of humour. Yet this is a behaviour that’s barely been touched on by psychologists. Opinions have been expressed – for example, La Fave and his colleagues thought that laughing at oneself was never genuine and couldn’t be a truly happy event. But for largely practical reasons, experiments on the topic are non-existent. Now Ursula Beermann and Willibald Ruch have shown one way to do it.
Sixty-seven undergrads rated their own ability to laugh at themselves and they nominated one or two peers to provide third-party ratings of the same. Sneakily, whilst the participants filled out these and other questionnaires at a computer, a screen camera took pictures of them. A little later the participants were asked to rate distorted pictures of the faces of unfamiliar men and women. To their surprise, included in the selection were the sneaky photos taken earlier of themselves. These photos of the participants had also been distorted to be, for example, stretched wide as if looking in a spoon (the Mac “Photobooth” software was used to create these effects).
The participants were filmed while they rated the photos so the researchers could later analyse the footage to see whether the participants laughed at the distorted images of themselves. Ekman’s Facial Action Coding system, which focuses on the flexing of specific facial muscles, was used to decode the participants’ facial expressions, and in particular to look for signs of genuine “Duchenne smiles”, which are symmetrical and involve creasing of the muscles around the eyes. Signs of laughter were also noted.
The findings seemed to validate the new methodological approach. Although 80 per cent of participants flashed a genuine smile at least once on seeing their own distorted image, it was those who claimed to be able to laugh at themselves, and whose peers agreed with this verdict, who showed more frequent and intense smiling and laughter in response to the distorted self-images, and fewer signs of fake smiles or negative emotion. On the other hand, there was no correlation between participants’ ability to laugh at themselves (based on self- and peer-report) and the amount of laughter triggered by distorted images of other people’s faces. This suggests that proclivity for laughing at oneself really is a distinct trait, separate from a general readiness to laugh.
Finally, those participants who laughed more at themselves tended to have more cheerful, less serious dispositions and to be in a better mood on the day of testing.
“…[T]he current study succeeded in providing the first empirical evidence on the phenomenon of laughing at oneself,” the researchers said.
Beermann, U., and Ruch, W. (2011). Can people really “laugh at themselves?”—Experimental and correlational evidence. Emotion, 11 (3), 492-501 DOI: 10.1037/a0023444