Category: Laughter

Here’s why phrases like “rowdy bowels” and “moose ooze” seem funny

By Emma Young

Which is funnier:

Sell bargain — or nymph piss?

Roof darkness — or gravy orgy?

Large small — or moose ooze?

If you went for the second each time, you’d be in good company. In a new study, participants gave word pairs in the second set the highest humour ratings, while those in the first languished near the bottom. One very obvious difference is that those in the second set reference sex or bodily excretions, while the others don’t. But Cynthia S. Q. Siew at the National University of Singapore, along with Tomas Engelthaler and Thomas T. Hills at the University of Warwick, also identified broader factors at play. In their paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, they argue that these factors explain why gangster pasta, for example, is funnier than insult nickname.

Continue reading “Here’s why phrases like “rowdy bowels” and “moose ooze” seem funny”

For Political Candidates, Making Jokes Online Might Backfire

By Emily Reynolds

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.

Continue reading “For Political Candidates, Making Jokes Online Might Backfire”

There’s a fascinating psychological story behind why your favourite film baddies all have a truly evil laugh

giphy2By guest blogger David Robson

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.

Such overt displays of delight at others’ misfortune are found universally in kids’ films, and many adult thriller and horror films too. Just think of the rapturous guffaws of the alien in the first Predator film as it is about to self-detonate, taking Arnold Schwarzenegger with it. Or Jack Nicholson’s chilling snicker in The Shining. Or Wario’s manic crowing whenever Mario was defeated. 

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.

Continue reading “There’s a fascinating psychological story behind why your favourite film baddies all have a truly evil laugh”

Episode 12: How To Be Funnier

GettyImages-643872600.jpgThis 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.

Background reading for this episode:

Episode credits: Presented and produced by Ginny Smith. Mixing Jeff Knowler. PsychCrunch theme music Catherine Loveday and Jeff Knowler. Art work Tim Grimshaw.

Check out this episode!

Subscribe and download via iTunes.
Subscribe and download via Stitcher.
Subscribe and listen on Spotify.

Past episodes:

Episode one: Dating and Attraction
Episode two: Breaking Bad Habits
Episode three: How to Win an Argument
Episode four: The Psychology of Gift Giving
Episode five: How To Learn a New Language
Episode six: How To Be Sarcastic 😉
Episode seven: Use Psychology To Compete Like an Olympian.
Episode eight: Can We Trust Psychological Studies?
Episode nine: How To Get The Best From Your Team
Episode ten: How To Stop Procrastinating
Episode eleven: How to Get a Good Night’s Sleep

PsychCrunch is sponsored by Routledge Psychology.

PsychCrunch Banner April 16

Routledge interviewed PsychCrunch presenter Christian Jarrett about the aims of the podcast and engaging with the public about psychology research.

There’s an evolutionary explanation for why we’re surprisingly bad at recognising each other’s laughter

GettyImages-667207606.jpgBy Alex Fradera

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.

Continue reading “There’s an evolutionary explanation for why we’re surprisingly bad at recognising each other’s laughter”

For teen boys at risk of psychopathy, laughter isn’t catching

gettyimages-857386041.jpgBy guest blogger Lucy Foulkes

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.

Continue reading “For teen boys at risk of psychopathy, laughter isn’t catching”

Can a good sense of humour protect you from stress?

Barbara WindsorBy Christian Jarrett

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.

Continue reading “Can a good sense of humour protect you from stress?”

If you like sick jokes, maybe it’s because you’re just so smart

By Christian Jarrett

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.

Continue reading “If you like sick jokes, maybe it’s because you’re just so smart”

You laugh differently with friends than you do with strangers (and listeners can tell the difference)

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)”

A laughing crowd changes the way your brain processes insults

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

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

Our free weekly email will keep you up-to-date with all the psychology research we digest: Sign up!