As a theatrical improviser, I’ve experienced workshops and shows where, after initial horseplay, people who hardly know each other share intimate autobiographical details, sometimes on a brightly lit stage. Where does this striking willingness to be vulnerable arrive from? New research suggests that part of the answer may be that the act of laughter encourages personal disclosure: we chuckle out our secrets.
At the start of Alan Gray’s study, groups of four participants watched a video to influence their mood: either a piece of “inoffensive observational comedy” (Michael McIntyre, naturally); an uplifting but sober clip from the nature series Planet Earth; or a neutral clip from a golf instruction video. Although it was rated as no more positive than the other videos – including the golf, surprisingly – the comedy clip was differentiated by more laughter, confirmed by independent judges (this mismatch between the ratings and laughter fits past research showing we are poor at judging our own laughter rates).
Participants then wrote five pieces of personal information they would be prepared to share with one of their companions. This showed that intimacy (rated from 1-10 by observers, based on the amount of personal details revealed) was significantly raised in the comedy clip condition compared with the others – an example item shared in the comedy condition being “in January I broke my collarbone falling off a pole while pole dancing.” Gray’s team, including Robin Dunbar, point out that laughter, quite apart from any attendant positive mood, produces endorphins that encourage physiological relaxation. And perhaps this is the trick: in this chilled-out state, such revelations just don’t seem excessively revealing.
The authors conclude that this state-changing power of laughter earns it the moniker of “grooming at a distance”, and they suggest further research down these lines may build the case for laughter’s function as social lubricant, amplifying and speeding intimacy and creating the conditions for durable social bonds. This might mean a comedy night is the ideal way to bond a team, or get to know a prospective partner.
Gray, A., Parkinson, B., & Dunbar, R. (2015). Laughter’s Influence on the Intimacy of Self-Disclosure Human Nature DOI: 10.1007/s12110-015-9225-8
How many psychologists does it take… to explain a joke?