Understanding jokes requires a certain amount of mental agility, psychologists tell us, because you need to recognise a sudden shift in meaning, or appreciate the blending of odd contexts that don’t normally go together. A new study in the journal Cognitive Processing has tested whether intelligence plays the same role in the appreciation of sick or black humour: the kind of jokes that make light of death, illness and the vulnerable. Consistent with past research linking intelligence with joke appreciation, the participants who most liked cartoons based on black humour also scored highest on verbal and non-verbal IQ.
By guest blogger Lucy Foulkes
The amount and type of laughter between two people can potentially tell us much more than that they are sharing a joke. For example, friends laugh more than strangers, and shared laughter can be an indicator of sexual interest between a couple. But as onlookers, how well can we use the sound of laughter to make these kinds of inferences? A new study in PNAS is the first to investigate this and it turns out, regardless of our culture or where we live, we are pretty good at using laughter to identify the nature of other people’s relationships. Continue reading “You laugh differently with friends than you do with strangers (and listeners can tell the difference)”
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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By guest blogger David Robson
When screenwriter Nora Ephron’s mother was on her deathbed, she had one instruction: “Take notes”. For the family of writers and raconteurs, no event was too painful to be burned in the crucible of their wit. “Everything,” Ephron Senior said, “is copy”. Nora Ephron applied the philosophy religiously with the semi-autobiographical novel and film Heartburn, documenting her husband’s cruel affair with “a fairly tall person with a neck as long as an arm and a nose as long as a thumb”.
As she explained later: “When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you. But when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it’s your laugh, so you become the hero rather than the victim of the joke.”
Clearly, it worked for Ephron – with Heartburn, she laughed her way from the divorce lawyers to Hollywood, becoming one of the world’s most successful comedy writers. But how about the rest of us? Recently, Lisa Kugler and Christof Kuhbandner at the University of Regensburg in Germany decided to test whether humour really does offer a valuable form of emotional regulation. They were particularly concerned with the possibility that jokes simply work as a distraction, making you think about something other than your hurt feelings. While that may help in the short term, it could impair your memory, so that you no longer remember exactly why you were upset. That would be a rather counter-productive way to manage our feelings: we all need to learn from our mistakes if we are to protect ourselves from further heartbreak.
If, on the other hand, the value of comedy comes from “reappraisal” – turning yourself from the victim into the hero, as Ephron claimed – then the memory should not be weakened, since you are still paying attention to the details. If so, humour should be a particularly effective way of helping you to flourish after upset.
To disentangle these two possibilities, Kugler and Kuhbandner opted to perform a carefully controlled lab study, to compare the effects of humour with a form of “rational appraisal” – a technique in which you try to detach yourself from an event and look at it logically, while distancing yourself from the emotional pain it brings.
Sixty-three undergraduates looked at a set of negative emotionally charged pictures, some of which were accompanied by a sentence that was either a straight, “rational” appraisal, or a joke. For instance, next to a scary picture of a snake bearing its mouth, the subjects either saw a straight, factual sentence explaining that this snake couldn’t bite because it didn’t have any teeth, or a funny quip about the snake’s glare: “When eggs are sold out in her favourite supermarket, Henrietta can get very angry”. Other negative images included a wounded child, a bomb, a hurricane, and a crying soldier, among others, all with either an accompanying factual and reassuring explanation or a joke.
The students rated how negative or positive they found each image, and whether they felt emotionally aroused by it or not, and then, a few minutes later, they had to note down details of as many of the pictures as they could remember. As a further test of the students’ memory, Kugler also showed them another set of images, which included some of the previous pictures, and the students had to report whether or not they recognised the images.
As Ephron might have predicted, the students seeing the humorous stimuli found the negative images considerably less upsetting, even compared to those viewing the rational facts that helped put the pictures in a less disconcerting perspective: clearly, laughter does soothe distress. What’s more, humour did not seem to impair memory any more than rational reappraisal: in fact, viewing the humorous comments even made the students slightly quicker to recognise the negative images later on. In other words, it didn’t seem that the jokes were distracting participants from the details of the images themselves and the value instead came from reinterpreting their content in a less negative light.
From these findings, you could conclude that humour really is the best medicine when it comes to heartache, even more than sober detachment and re-interpretation. But we should be a little reluctant to read too much into the experiment, with its rather restricted set-up. Viewing slightly upsetting pictures is a far cry from discovering a spouse’s betrayal! What’s more, the rational reappraisal process in the study was more passive than in real life: it’s far easier, but perhaps less effective, to read a pithy picture caption, compared to finding a sober way to re-evaluate our real-life tribulations.
On the other hand, this study could have underestimated the power of humour. Participants completed the tasks alone, but laughter is most often a social activity. As Sophie Scott at University College London and others have found, we are far more likely to laugh when we’re with other people, particularly people we like. It’s likely that hearing others laugh could itself be cathartic and help to heal our wounds.
More realistic research is clearly needed to build on this lab study. Still, the findings are certainly consistent with the idea that, if nothing else, laughter may be the chink of light that reminds us even the darkest days will end eventually. As Ephron put it: “My mother wanted us to understand that the tragedies of your life one day have the potential to be comic stories the next.” And that’s enough to bring anyone comfort, the next time we face tragedy (or simply slip on a banana skin).
Kugler L, & Kuhbandner C (2015). That’s not funny! – But it should be: effects of humorous emotion regulation on emotional experience and memory. Frontiers in psychology, 6 PMID: 26379608
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There is probably nothing more fun than making a baby or toddler laugh. And now there’s news that it could even help with learning – the toddler’s not the adult’s.
In the first study to look at the effects of humour on learning at such a young age, Rana Esseily and her colleagues began by showing 53 18-month-olds how to reach a toy duck with a cardboard rake (other toddlers who’d spontaneously used the rake as a reaching tool were excluded). Crucially, half the participating toddlers were given several non-humorous demonstrations of how to use the rake to reach and pull the duck nearer. In these straight demonstrations, the experimenter was smiley, but just played with the duck for a bit after getting hold of it. The other toddlers were given several humorous demonstrations. In this case, after getting hold of the duck, the experimenter suddenly threw it on the floor and smiled. Sixteen of the 37 toddlers in the jokey condition laughed at least once when shown the funny demonstrations.
Next, the researchers placed the rake near each toddler’s hand, to see if they would imitate the action and use the rake to reach the duck for themselves. Among the laughing toddlers, all but one (93.7 per cent) used the rake to reach the duck. In comparison, just 19 per cent of the non-laughing toddlers in the jokey condition used the rake, and just 25 per cent of the 16 toddlers who’d been given the straight (non-jokey) demonstrations.
“Our results suggest that laughing might be a stimulant of learning even during the second year of life,” the researchers concluded. However, they conceded that there are other possible interpretations of their findings. For example, perhaps infants who laugh at jokes are just more cognitively advanced and that’s why they showed superior learning (although if that were true, you’d also expect a similar range of ability in the control group, which wasn’t found). Or maybe it’s not laughter per se that aids toddlers’ learning, but any kind of positive emotion. “Further work is clearly now required to elucidate the question of the mechanisms underlying this effect of laughter on infants’ learning,” the researchers said.
Esseily, R., Rat-Fischer, L., Somogyi, E., O’Regan, K., & Fagard, J. (2015). Humour production may enhance observational learning of a new tool-use action in 18-month-old infants Cognition and Emotion, 1-9 DOI: 10.1080/02699931.2015.1036840
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?
Science suggests a funnier workplace should be a more effective one, encouraging positive mood and a playful, open approach. But much of the evidence to date rests on theoretical argument or lab experiments. Now a new study of genuine team meetings shows that laughter begets laughter and that bouts of humour really can clear the ground for new approaches and better performance.
Using videos taken as part of an improvement process run across two German companies, the study was able to determine the flow of interactions within real team meetings. Researchers Nale Lehmann-Willenbrock and Joseph Allen found laughter was likely to follow attempts at humour – although damp squibs were also possible – and that laughter could also trigger more jokes, effectively producing humour-laughter-humour chains. This tallies with past contributions to the field that suggest humour tends to stick around when introduced.
Moments after the laughter died down from a joke, teams were more likely to engage in productive, open behaviours, such as proposing new ideas, asking questions, or offering praise or encouraging participation by others. This fits with the broaden-and-build model of positive states, where a good mood opens us up to other people and different ideas – all useful in a collaborative context.
These behaviours appear to contribute to longer-term performance, according to ratings given by team supervisors post-meeting and two years on. The higher the number of “humour plus laughter” incidents (but not humour or laughter alone), the better these ratings tended to be. The repeated importance of humour in tandem with laughter suggest that it’s not purely elevated mood or a quality of wannabe jokers, but a more dynamic give and take between team members that makes the difference.
We’re still in the early days of understanding humour’s effects in real work environments. This study only considered positive humour and set aside ridicule or spiteful jokes. We know from the lab that sarcasm can have surprising, even beneficial effects, but will this translate to a real-world context? Also, this study only looked at teams with members fairly long in tenure, so what about the other extreme: the consequences of a team’s first shared joke? Plenty of punchlines yet to come!
Lehmann-Willenbrock, N., & Allen, J. (2014). How fun are your meetings? Investigating the relationship between humor patterns in team interactions and team performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99 (6), 1278-1287 DOI: 10.1037/a0038083
|Damage wreaked by Hurricane Sandy at Bay Head, New Jersey. Image: Skrum / Getty Images.|
As a tragedy unfolds, only the callous or gauche would joke about it. Yet with time, topics previously off limits come to be seen as fair game for humour. In fact, joke-making about loss and tragedy can be seen as a way to cope, or at least a reflection of coping. For a new study, Peter McGraw and his colleagues have charted people’s responses over time to jokes about a real tragedy – Hurricane Sandy, which struck the USA in 2012. The researchers were able to plot the way that the jokes were seen as funny prior to landfall, then offensive and unfunny as disaster struck, then funny as the horror faded, then unfunny again, presumably as the event lost its impact and topicality. “We find that temporal distance creates a comedic sweet spot,” they said.
Over a thousand participants were recruited online at different times. They were asked to rate three potentially humorous tweets ostensibly written by Hurricane Sandy. For instance, one said “Oh Shit just destroyed a Starbucks. Now I’m a pumpkin spice hurricane.”
The participants were recruited at ten different time periods, beginning the day before landfall (Oct 29, 2012), and then in the ensuing days and weeks, so that the final sample to be contacted rated the tweets on February 6, 2013. People’s responses fell into two distinct time frames. Over the course of the week during which the hurricane struck, the funniness of the tweets peaked prior to its arrival and then gradually diminished as the reality of loss and devastation became apparent. The second time frame covered two weeks to 99 days after the hurricane struck. Gradually, week-by-week, people rated the tweets as increasingly funny, with peak funniness observed at 36 days after the tragedy.
McGraw and his team said this result was consistent with “benign violation theory” – the idea that something is humorous when it is seen as both a threat and somehow safe at the same time. The perception of safety comes from psychological distance – in this study created by the passage of time, but geography, social distance (i.e. the threat is to someone else) and hypothetical distance (i.e. the threat is unreal) can all have the same effect.
In this research, as the tragic event of the hurricane faded into the past, it became safe to joke about it. Supporting this idea, people’s ratings of the offensiveness of the jokes declined in tandem with their perceived funniness. However, benign violation theory predicts that humour disappears when there is too little threat. This was borne out as ratings of the funniness of the jokes gradually declined from 36 days after the tragedy.
The researchers said future research could explore how other forms of psychological distance modulate the perceived funniness of jokes. For now they said their results favour a modification to the popular saying “humour is tragedy plus time” … “Transforming tragedy into comedy requires time, not too little yet not too much,” they said.
Peter McGraw, Lawrence Williams, and Caleb Warren (2013). The Rise and Fall of Humor: Psychological Distance Modulates Humorous Responses to Tragedy. Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550613515006
Psychologist magazine special issue on humour and laughter.
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
To evolutionary psychologists, the noise made by gorillas, chimps and bonobos when you tickle their feet is no laughing matter. These distinctive vocalisations suggest that rather than evolving separately, laughter evolved in a shared common ancestor before becoming tailored in each primate species, including humans.
To find support for this idea, Diana Szameitat and her colleagues scanned the brains of 18 men and women whilst they listened to the sound of human tickle-induced laughter as well as laughter prompted by joy and taunting. The researchers found a ‘double-dissociation’ – the tickle laughter provoked extra activity in the secondary auditory cortex, likely reflecting the acoustical complexity of this kind of laughter, whereas the joy and taunting laughter prompted more activity in the medial frontal cortex, a region associated with social and emotional processing. These differences were observed whether the participants were tasked with categorising the laughter they heard, or merely with counting the number of laughs. The finding suggests that humans produce and process an evolutionarily ‘old’ form of tickle-based laughter, which is shared with non-human primates, as well as a newer, more emotionally sophisticated variant.
The laughter stimuli were provided by a team of eight professional actors using ‘auto induction’ techniques. This means they used their imagination, memories, and body movements to provoke the required emotions and bodily sensations in themselves as far as they could. The researchers said they only selected laughter samples that had been accurately categorised (as joy, taunting, or tickle laughter) in pilot work at well above chance levels by naive listeners. The dependence on acted laughter does seem to be a weakness of the study, however, especially as it’s a well-documented fact that people are unable to tickle themselves.
‘Our study provides suggestive evidence that laughter, in the form of a reflex-like reaction to touch, has been adopted into human social behaviour from animal behaviour,’ the researchers said. ‘Through the differentiation of human social interaction over time this “simple” form of laughter may have diversified to become a spectrum of different laughter variants in order to accommodate increased complexity of human social interaction.’
Szameitat, D., Kreifelts, B., Alter, K., Szameitat, A., Sterr, A., Grodd, W., and Wildgruber, D. (2010). It is not always tickling: Distinct cerebral responses during perception of different laughter types. NeuroImage, 53 (4), 1264-1271 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2010.06.028