Over the last few years, memes have played an increasingly important part in online political discussion: in 2016, the Washington Post dubbed the 2016 presidential election “the most-memed election in U.S. history”, and CNN has already christened the 2020 race “the meme election”.
But politicians may want to pause for thought before they hit send on that jokey tweet. New research in Communication Research Reports, from Ohio State University’s Olivia Bullock and Austin Huber,suggests that humour doesn’t always go down well online — and that this can impact what voters think of particular candidates and potentially how they vote.
Towards the end of the Disney film Aladdin, our hero’s love rival, the evil Jafar, discovers Aladdin’s secret identity and steals his magic lamp. Jafar’s wish to become the world’s most powerful sorcerer is soon granted and he then uses his powers to banish Aladdin to the ends of the Earth.
What follows next is a lingering, close-up of Jafar’s body. He leans forward, fists clenched, with an almost constipated look on his face. He then explodes in uncontrollable cackles that echo across the landscape. For many millennials growing up in the 1990s, it is an archetypical evil laugh.
A recent essay by Jens Kjeldgaard-Christiansen in the Journal of Popular Culture asks what the psychology behind this might be. Kjeldgaard-Christiansen is well placed to provide an answer having previously used evolutionary psychology to explain the behaviours of heroes and villains in fiction more generally.
This is Episode 12 of PsychCrunch, the podcast from the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest, sponsored by Routledge Psychology. Download here.
Can psychology help us to be funnier? Our presenter Ginny Smith hears how a key ingredient of humour is “incongruity” and the surprise of unexpected meanings. Individual words too can be amusing, but actually most of the time we laugh not because we’ve seen or heard a joke, but as a natural part of friendly interaction.
Our guests, in order of appearance, are: Cardiff University neuroscientist Dean Burnett, author of The Happy Brain; psychologist Tomas Engelthaler at the University of Warwick, who co-authored a paper on the funniest words in English; and “stand up scientist” Sophie Scott at UCL, who gave the 2017 Christmas lectures on the neuroscience of voices, speech and laughter.
We have a mostly impressive ability to identify people we know based on the sound of their voice, but prior research has uncovered an intriguing exception – we’re not very good at discerning identity from laughter. Now Nadine Lavan and her colleagues have published research in Evolution and Human Behavior that looks into why this might be and what it says about our evolutionary past.
When you see someone laughing hysterically, do you often find yourself laughing too? Laughter is usually extremely contagious. In fact, we are up to 30 times more likely to laugh with someone else than when alone. It’s a powerful bonding tool: we enjoy seeing other people happy, we enjoy laughing with them, and this brings us closer together.
But is this equally true for everyone, or is laughter more contagious for some people than others? For a paper in Current Biology, a team of researchers at UCL, led by Elizabeth O’Nions and César F. Lima, has investigated whether adolescent boys at risk of psychopathy are less likely to find laughter catching.
They say that if you can laugh at it, you can live with it. Is this true? Does the ability to see the funny side of things really act like a psychological shield against stress? A series of new studies in Personality and Social Psychological Bulletin provides some tentative support for the idea. But the research also illustrates why this is such a difficult topic to study – does humour really reduce stress or is it just easier to see the funny side when you are coping well? And it’s worth remembering the serious risk that if humour is shown to be protective by psychology research – and it’s a big if – that those who suffer most from stress will be put under social pressure to help themselves by cheering up, a situation only likely to intensify their distress.
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.
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
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