Why You Laugh When It’s Not Even Funny

Sunday, January 8, 2023

Research shows laughter may be more of a social tool than a sign of enjoyment in conversations with strangers.

Think of the last time you remember laughing. Maybe it was when you were showing someone a funny video of animals dancing in tiny hats. Or maybe you were catching up with close friends at a New Year’s Eve party. 

Laughter is a social phenomenon: people are thirty times more likely to laugh in the presence of others. However, not all laughter is triggered by amusement – for example, there’s nervous laughter or polite laughter.

A recent study backs up the idea that laughter in conversation plays a role more relevant to social bonding and less relevant to amusement. The study is also one of the first to suggest that conversational laughter might be more about tendencies of people to laugh than the conversation itself. 

In the study, published in 2022 in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, participants were matched with ten unfamiliar conversational partners. Each pair was asked to sit and talk for ten minutes about any subject. The conversations were recorded.

After each participant had conducted ten conversations, researchers analyzed the recordings for bouts of laughter, described scientifically as “a continuous string of ‘ha ha ha’s.” Participants also filled out surveys to assess their enjoyment of each conversation and how similar they felt to each partner.

It’s not you, it’s me

One question the researchers wanted to answer was where the laughter came from: were some people more prone to laughter or were some simply funnier than others? The unusual round robin design of the study allowed the researchers to tease apart these factors, because researchers could assess how people behaved while interacting with different partners. 

Researchers expected some participants (presumably funnier participants) to consistently make their partners laugh. Instead, participants themselves tended to be consistent laughers or non-laughers, regardless of their partner.

“We have this idea that there are some people who are just funny and fun to be around, who are going to make us laugh a lot,” said Adrienne Wood, head of the Emotion and Behavior Lab at the University of Virginia and lead author on the study. “But at least in these small talk situations, you’re going to see [someone] laugh or not laugh consistently across conversations.” 

Rather than reacting to the comedic talents of someone they’re interacting with, some people simply laugh more all on their own.

Connection, not amusement

To better understand the purpose laughter might play in these conversations, the researchers next sought to understand whether laughter was associated with pleasure by analyzing the surveys collected after each conversation.

Counterintuitively, the more people laughed, the less they enjoyed their conversations. 

That association might seem discouraging, but it came with a benefit. Partners of the frequent laughers tended to feel more “similar” to the laughers on post-conversation questionnaires. This suggested to the researchers that laughter might not correspond to amusement in this setting. Instead, laughter could serve as a social tool to become more companionable when talking to a stranger.

No such thing as a fake laugh

Wood said the findings in her study have made her reconsider the idea of fake laughter. 

“A lot of people are criticized for having a fake laugh or for not being genuine with their laughter,” Wood said. But based on her team’s research and that of others, Wood suggested laughter is always genuinely communicating something, even if it’s not just amusement. “Everybody’s laughter is serving a purpose,” she said.