15 November 2021

You’re having a (quite revealing) laugh

The Back Page

Hot off TMR’s they-got-a-grant-for-that? pile is a study likely to make you even more self-conscious in your next social setting. 

Laughter, say the authors of this Dutch study published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, “is a rich vocal signal that can be used to make a wide range of inferences about others, from their social relationships to their identity.” 

But volitional laughter – what you produce when you’re trying to make a good impression, break the ice, convey polite agreement and all the other faintly excruciating things we didn’t miss during lockdown – is quite different from the spontaneous kind.  

Whereas spontaneous laughter is controlled by an “evolutionarily ancient midline system associated with innate vocalizations”, volitional or deliberate laughs are closer to learned vocalisations like speech. 

Since individuals are more easily identified by the giveaways in their volitional laughter, the authors write, they hypothesised that group and cultural information could be encoded in there too. 

The researchers played out-of-context clips of Dutch and Japanese people laughing both volitionally and spontaneously to more than 1000 Dutch and Japanese listeners, and asked them to judge whether the laughing person was from their own or another culture; and whether they perceived the laughter as spontaneous or volitional. They also rated the positivity of each laughter clip.

The listeners could tell group membership at better-than-chance rates (62% for Dutch and 55% for Japanese listeners) from both types of laughter (i.e. they failed to show volitional laughter was more identifying than spontaneous): “Our findings indicate that similarly to other types of communicative signals, cultural differences in how people laugh allow listeners to accurately infer whether a laughing person is from their own or another cultural group.”

Unsurprisingly, both groups rated spontaneous laughter as more positive than volitional laughter. 

The Dutch listeners – but not the Japanese – tended to rate laughter from a believed in-group member as more positive than that from out-group members. The authors attribute this to cultural differences in “self-enhancement”, or the tendency to exaggerate one’s own virtues.

“Motivations for positive self-views are more pervasive in individualistic cultures (such as the Dutch) than collectivistic cultures (such as the Japanese). This results in more positive evaluations toward groups to which an individual belongs.” 

If you see something that makes you titter politely, send it to felicity@medicalrepublic.com.au

COVID-19 live update