Science & Technology

Can You Tell Fake Laughter from Real Laughter?

The only thing worse than telling an amazing joke and hearing crickets is telling an amazing joke and hearing fake laughter. Whether it's coming from a morning radio DJ or a glad-handing salesperson, there's something about a forced laugh that feels downright wrong. But would you still have that feeling if you traveled halfway around the world and told a joke to a culture you'd never encountered? A new study says yes.

Laughing All the Way to the Fake

Communications professor Greg Bryant has made a name for himself as the "Laughter Guy" — he's spent a lot of time and energy on the topic. It's easy to understand why he finds it so fascinating. Laughter feels uniquely human, but we share the habit with many other animals. It feels like it's an individual's reaction to a joke or funny gag, but it's been proven that it's more about group bonding than any punchline. He's written on the subject of fake laughter in the past, but in a soon-to-be-published study, he's helmed the first cross-cultural investigation of fake laughter in the world.

Armed with a set of real and fake laughs from American women, Bryant challenged 884 participants from 21 different countries spread across all six inhabited continents to identify the real laughter. Try a few yourself in the video below:

As it turned out, they were naturals. Nearly two-thirds of the participants, on average, were able to accurately guess which one was which, regardless of whether they came from the same culture — or even if they shared the same language. That all supports Bryant's idea that laughter is something intrinsic to the human species, and not something with cultural roots. And he's got lots more evidence to back that up.

Laughing to Survive

We mentioned earlier how humans aren't the only animals that laugh, and how not all laughs are meant to express approval of a punchline. So if laughter goes back further than the human race (perhaps about 10 million years further), then what was it for in the first place? Well, if you consider medicine to be something that helps you survive, then laughter might really be the best medicine after all. As our primate ancestors developed a survival strategy that relied on a strong social network, affirming those social bonds may have grown more and more important. In fact, both chimps and human children have been observed to engage in more and longer play activities when they laugh together — and the former is certainly not telling knock-knock jokes.

There's one more fascinating detail to mention on this topic. Another study (also by Bryant) suggested that laughter might convey important information not only to the person you're laughing with but also to anyone else who might be listening. When listeners (again from several different cultures) were tasked with telling which laughs were shared between strangers and which were between friends, they were able to do so with surprising reliability. In other words, a laugh doesn't just tell your friend that you feel close to them: It also tells anyone who might be listening that you've got friends on your side.

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Laughter says a lot without saying anything at all. To learn how to listen even closer, check out "Laughter: A Scientific Investigation" by Robert R. Provine. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Why Do We Laugh?

Written by Reuben Westmaas July 25, 2018

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