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Photo: <a href="">Chris Hunkeler</a>, Creative Commons, some rights reserved
Photo: Chris Hunkeler, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Natural Selections: Laughter

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What is laughter? Is it exclusive to humans? Is it different for women and men? Martha Foley and Dr. Curt Stager discuss "the best medicine."

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Martha Foley: I hear we’re getting a bit little more specific, a little bit more analytical about human laughter. We’ve talked about laughs before and how they’re hard to fake and they’re sort of an emotional release. But now, go figure, they’re still researching the human laugh.

Curt Stager: Yeah it’s amazing what you can get funding to investigate nowadays! This latest thing I dug out of Scientific American is summarizing some work by psychologists at Vanderbilt University and they’re gathering evidence by looking at how people laugh in different situation--that when you laugh, it’s not just for your own good, it’s not just an emotional release, but it’s some kind of a social signal, because people laugh differently depending on who they’re with and what the situation is.

MF: Okay, so who laughs loudest when?

CS: Well the set up was (I don’t know what age groups they’re working with, I assume it’s with adults) they’d have mixed groups of men and women, and then women and women, men and men, strangers and friends, all of these different combination--and they’d show them Monty Python films.

MF: Something really funny.

CS: Yeah, and record how they laugh. So one pattern they noticed was that men laugh the most when they’re with familiar males, with their buddies. Women laugh loudest, more wildly, around male strangers, and less around other women, and less around men that they knew.

MF: Well that’s weird, isn’t it? So I wonder what’s going on with that.

CS: First all, you wonder if it’s generally applicable. But assuming that it is, what could possibly explain it?

MF: Is it sort of an ice breaker with a strange male, you wonder? Is it kind of a non-threatening way of contacting or making some sort of introduction?

CS: It sounds like it could be something like that, and these investigators were trying to get at it by getting a little more information. They continue the experiment by playing recordings of different kinds of laugh and seeing how people rated the person. They said, “Would you like to meet this person that you just heard on the tape.” 

MF: And what kind of laughs went out?

CS: Well the ones that got the lowest ratings were anything that sounded like a snort, a grunt, or didn’t sound like a voice. Or fake. And then the most popular sounding ones were females that had a high melodic kind of a vocal laugh.

MF: As they were laughing to strange men?

CS:  Yeah, and so it sounds like you’re an attractive interesting person that you’d kind of like to meet. So you put all that together, maybe you could explain it by a woman being in a situation with strange males who are potentially a threat--making that kind of vocalization maybe sets them at ease and sets a good social tone to maybe diffuse some of the threat.

MF: You know what’s so interesting about this is, you really can’t fake a laugh. So all of these researchers, they have to be dealing with real laugher basically. If you’re implying that a certain kind of laugh manipulates the social situation in some wa,y but you can’t fake that, it’s one of the most natural things that we do.

CS: Well you wouldn’t say manipulating as much as getting benefit from showing what’s really inside you. So if you’ve got the personality goods, laughing may put it on display.

MF: You can’t pretend.

CS: You can fake a smile pretty easily, but you can’t fake a laugh. If you’ve got the goods, maybe it’s to your advantage to let one out and let people see what’s in there.

MF: Hey I have another question. They say that women laugh best, or most explosively among strange men. They clearly were not studying teenage girls. Obviously, because something happens when a group of teenage girls starts laughing that happens in no other group that I know of.

CS: Well that’s an entire other species, I’m sorry; that’s another research project all together.

MF: It’s another project, but it’s quite a phenomenon anyway, when they get going.

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