Category: Laughter

Toddlers learn better when you make them giggle

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

further reading
Little comedians
The jokes that toddlers make
Girls’ and boys’ brains respond differently to funny videos
How many psychologists does it take to explain a joke?

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

After laughing, people are more willing to share personal details about themselves

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.

  ResearchBlogging.orgGray, A., Parkinson, B., & Dunbar, R. (2015). Laughter’s Influence on the Intimacy of Self-Disclosure Human Nature DOI: 10.1007/s12110-015-9225-8

–further reading–
How many psychologists does it take… to explain a joke?

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

Jokey team meetings are more productive, as long as people laugh along

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

–Further reading–
Jokes are a serious part of business
The psychology of humour and comedy (Psychologist magazine feature)

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

Locating the "sweet spot" when jokes about tragedy are seen as funny

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

–further reading–
Psychologist magazine special issue on humour and laughter.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

The first ever experimental investigation of laughing at oneself

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.

ResearchBlogging.orgBeermann, U., and Ruch, W. (2011). Can people really “laugh at themselves?”—Experimental and correlational evidence. Emotion, 11 (3), 492-501 DOI: 10.1037/a0023444

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

The evolutionary roots of laughter

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.’

ResearchBlogging.orgSzameitat, 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

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Jokes are a serious part of business

Most textbooks fail to discuss the role of humour in business negotiations but from her analysis of two real-life meetings concerning a multi-million pound transaction, Taina Vuorela at the Helsinki School of Economics reports that humour can be an important strategic tool for negotiators.

Vuorela first sat in on an internal strategic meeting held by sellers – four British men and a Finn – at a Finnish company that manufactures engines for use in power plants. She then sat in on a meeting that took place hours later between those sellers and a team of British and Irish buyers representing a British power company.

She found that joking was a sign of power, so that in the second meeting it was the chief buyer who initiated and ended most of the joking. His authority was betrayed by the fact everyone laughed at his jokes. “Based on my observations as a researcher…the quality of his quips did not deserve the level of laughter they received…the sellers seemed to be showing their respect for the head buyer in this way”, Vuorela said.

Humour was also used to express frustration. “It was a ‘safe’ way to express discontent because it permitted the speaker to express a problem while at the same time saving his face or that of the interlocutor because the joke was ‘off-the-record’ and not an official part of the negotiation”, Vuorela explained.

Experts tend to advise against using ethnic humour in business deals but Vuorela found that jokes about cultural differences were common. “Joking about your own national characteristics seems to be an acceptable way to produce ethnic humour”, she said.

Finally, there was evidence of unsuccessful humour – for example, although the sellers joked about their product in private, they did not respond to jokes about their product made by the buyers.

“Although consultative business communication guide books warn negotiators against using humour in multicultural negotiating, the data from this study indicate that disregarding humour in such business meetings would leave a negotiator on the ‘outside’ of the process”, Vuorela concluded.

Vuorela, T. (2005). Laughing matters: A case study of humour in multicultural business negotiations. Negotiation Journal, 21, 105-130.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Link to Laughlab