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The study of laughter provides a novel approach to the mechanisms and evolution of vocal production, perception and social behavior

Robert Provine

Social and Linguistic Context

Laughter is a decidedly social signal, not an egocentric expression of emotion. In the absence of stimulating media (television, radio or books), people are about 30 times more likely to laugh when they are in a social situation than when they are alone. Indeed people are more likely to smile or talk to themselves than they are to laugh when they are alone. Aside from the obvious implication that sociality can enhance laughter and perhaps one's mood, these observations indicate that laughter has a social function. What can we say about laughter as communication?

In an attempt to gather some clues, my colleagues and I have collected observations on 1,200 instances of naturally occurring human laughter. Three undergraduate assistants (Lisa Greisman, Tina Runyan, Michelle Bowers) and I wandered various public gathering places where we eavesdropped on groups of laughing people. We carefully took note of the principals engaged in the behavior—the gender of the speaker and the audience, whether the speaker or the audience laughed and what was said immediately before the laughter.

Contrary to our expectations we found that most conversational laughter is not a response to structured attempts at humor, such as jokes or stories. Less than 20 percent of the laughter in our sample was a response to anything resembling a formal effort at humor. Most of the laughter seemed to follow rather banal remarks, such as "Look, it's Andre," "Are you sure?" and "It was nice meeting you too." Even our "greatest hits," the funniest of the 1,200 pre-laugh comments were not necessarily howlers: "You don't have to drink, just buy us drinks," "She's got a sex disorder—she doesn't like sex," and "Do you date within your species?" Mutual playfulness, in-group feeling and positive emotional tone—not comedy—mark the social settings of most naturally occurring laughter. Research that focuses only on the response of an audience to jokes (a common laboratory scenario) targets only a small subset of laughter.

One of the key features of natural laughter is its placement in speech. Laughter is not randomly scattered throughout the speech stream. The speaker and the audience seldom interrupt the phrase structure of speech with laughter. In our sample of 1,200 laughs there were only eight interruptions of speech by laughter, all of them by the speaker. Thus a speaker may say "You are going where?... ha-ha," but rarely "You are going... ha-ha... where?" The occurrence of laughter during pauses at the end of phrases suggests that a lawful and probably neurologically based process governs the placement of laughter in speech—a process in which speech has priority access to the single vocalization channel. The strong and orderly relationship between laughter and speech is akin to punctuation in written communication (and is called the punctuation effect).

Our field study revealed other clues about laughter in human communication. A counterintuitive finding was that the average speaker laughs about 46 percent more often than the audience. This finding reveals the limits of analyses that report only audience behavior—the typical approach of humor research—and neglect the social nature of the laughing relationship.

The gender of the principals involved plays a large role in determining the amount of speaker laughter. Whether they are speakers or audiences (in mixed-sex groups), females laugh more often than males. Female speakers laugh 127 percent more than their male audience. In contrast, male speakers laugh about 7 percent less than their female audience. Neither males nor females laugh as much to female speakers as they do to male speakers. (The lot of the female comedian is not an easy one—whether her audience is male or female.)

These gender differences in the pattern of laughter are at least as strong as those noted for speech by the linguist Deborah Tannen of Georgetown University. The limited cross-cultural evidence suggests that males are the leading humor producers and that females are the leading laughers. These differences are already present by the time that joking first appears around six years of age.

What message is being conveyed by a laughing speaker or a laughing audience? In some respects laughter may be a signal of dominance/submission or acceptance/rejection. Consider the distinction between laughing with and laughing at someone. Valuable insights about laughter's social function will come from studies of laughter in groups of people who differ in social rank and gender.

A response of laughter by the audience may affirm or negate the spirit of the speaker's message. "Polite" laughter, for example, may be a forced effort on the part of the audience to signal their accord with the speaker, quite the opposite of the indignant "ha!" A speaker, in other cases, may buffer an aggressive comment with laughter or deliver a remark using "laugh-speak," a consciously controlled hybrid of laughter and speech. Talk-show hosts, who are experts at shaping the course of a conversation, commonly use laugh-speak. In this sense laughter may modify the behavior of others by shaping the emotional tone of a conversation.

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