We usually think of laughter as a sound of joy and mirth, but in certain contexts, such as when it accompanies an insult, it takes on a negative meaning, signaling contempt and derision, especially in a group situation. Most of us probably know from experience that this makes insults sting more, now a study in Social Neuroscience has shown the neural correlates of this effect. Within a fraction of a second, the presence of a laughing crowd changes the way that the brain processes an insult.
Marte Otten and her colleagues asked 46 participants to read 60 insults and 60 compliments presented on-screen one word at a time. Half these insults (e.g. “You are antisocial and annoying”) and compliments (e.g. “You are strong and independent”) featured the silhouette of a crowd of people at the bottom of each screen, and the end of the insult or compliment was followed immediately by a final screen showing the phrase “and they feel the same way” together with the sound of laughter lasting two seconds. Throughout this entire process, the researchers recorded the participants’ brainwaves using EEG.
Otten’s team were particularly interested in the N400 – a negative spike of brain activity that tends to be larger when people hear something unexpected or incongruent with the context – and in the so-called “Late Positive Potential (LPP)” which is a positive spike of brain activity that can occur 300ms to 1 second after a stimulus and is usually taken as a sign of emotional processing.
The participants’ brains appeared to register the difference between insults and compliments incredibly quickly. Within 300 to 400ms after the onset of the first insulting or complimentary word, the participants’ showed a larger LPP in response to insults, and a more widespread N400.
Moreover, when there was the sound of laughter, the size of the LPP was even greater in the insults condition, whereas the compliments condition was unchanged. In other words, insults almost immediately prompt more emotional processing in the brain than compliments, and this more intense processing is accentuated rapidly by a public context and the sound of laughter.
The researchers said their findings are “highly relevant for research that focuses on negative interpersonal interactions such as bullying, or interpersonal and intergroup conflict.” They added: “While the insulted is still busy reading the unfolding insult, the extra sting of publicity is already encoded and integrated in the brain.”
A problem with interpreting the specifics of the study arises from the way that it combined a visual signal of a public context (the silhouette of a crowd) and the sound of laughter, with the image of the crowd preceding the start of the laughter. This makes it tricky to untangle the effects of a public context from the specific effects of hearing laughter. Indeed, the brainwave data showed that, at a neural level, participants were already responding differently to public insults before they could have registered the sound of the laughter.
This issue aside, the researchers said their findings show that “the presence of a laughing crowd … leads to stronger and more elongated emotional processing. In short, it seems that public insults are no laughing matter, at least not for the insulted.”
Otten, M., Mann, L., van Berkum, J., & Jonas, K. (2016). No laughing matter: How the presence of laughing witnesses changes the perception of insults. Social Neuroscience, 1-12 DOI: 10.1080/17470919.2016.1162194
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