Why We Laugh, and Why We Need To

Research into perhaps the oldest form of communication


‘Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way, when you criticize them, you are a mile away from them and you have their shoes.’

Why does this joke by Jack Handy work? The reason is because it relies on inference. At the start of the sentence, we mentally extrapolate the direction it’s going in, only to discover that we’ve been taken down the garden path to an unexpected conclusion.


A complicated affair

Getting a laugh is a subtle and complicated business, not a paint-by-numbers process. Any professional comedian knows the same joke can work one night and flop the next. There’s a long queue of public figures who will vouch for the cost of misjudgment. Take Gerald Ratner, who wiped £500 million off the value of his family jewelry business and lost his £650,000 salary in 1991 when his joke backfired. To get a laugh, he said that a £4.95 cut-glass sherry decanter with six glasses on a silver-plated tray was ‘total crap’ and went on to say that the earrings in his shops were cheaper than a prawn sandwich but probably wouldn’t last as long. His speech features in Stephen Weir’s book, History’s Worst Decisions, along with Eve eating the apple and Nero destroying Rome.

Genuine humor requires us to read the context of a situation, pick the right tone and choose our pauses. Sometimes no words are needed; a look is enough. In 25 years of observation, I have found that people are funnier when they are more ‘present’. This is consistent with the principle of ‘flow’, as defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in which we experience complete concentration, involvement and exuberance in the current moment.


Laughter and humor

Of course, laughter doesn’t always have a connection to humor. It can be nervous (as in job interviews), diplomatic (as in conversations with your CEO), evil (as per Hollywood villains), or fake (to cover up when you haven’t heard what someone said). In other words, it serves a multitude of social purposes. Robert R. Provine, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, believes that laughter may have pre-dated human speech by millions of years, hardwiring it into the human brain in the process. The fact that laughter arrives well before speech for babies, and manifests in every culture, proves that it is an instinctive and universal mechanism.

Based on a sample of 1,200 laughter episodes, Provine and his team studied the placement of laughter in the speech stream, and found it isn’t random. Rather than breaking the phrase structure, laughter occupies the same spaces as punctuation marks. For example, a speaker may say “Are you out again tonight? Ha-ha,”  but seldom “Are you out… ha-ha… again tonight?” Provine concluded that laughter is ‘neurologically orchestrated’, meaning that we follow conventions about placement without conscious consideration.


Who laughs the most?

Studies by Sophie Scott, a neuroscientist at University College London, refers to laughter as ‘an index of the strength of a relationship.’ She believes that mirroring another person’s emotional state, through laughing, is a way of demonstrating affiliation and strengthening bonds. Scott found that the person who laughs the most at any time tends to be the person speaking rather than the one who’s listening. This makes sense when we understand that laughter induces laughter in others. If you’re not sure this is true, try listening to this announcement on a supposedly stuffy BBC current affairs programme. Radio presenter Charlotte Green played the earliest known recording of the human voice, but got the giggles when a colleague whispered that it sounded like a bee in a jar.

Rather than making howls of protest for lowering her professional standards, listeners reported that Green’s laughter made their day. In a world where we’re constantly warned about the depressing risks that we face, it’s good to remember that laughing is contagious, free, and thoroughly healthy for our relationships.



BBC article by David Robson: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20150320-why-do-we-laugh-inappropriately

The Observer: ‘Beyond a joke: the truth about why we laugh’, by Robert Provine, 2 September 2012.


See here for the original article, first published on the Psychology Today website. 


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