Wednesday, April 04, 2007


Laughter as a social mechanism

The New York Times last month had an interesting story about studies of laughter — differentiated from study of humour.

Laughter, a topic that stymied philosophers for 2,000 years, is finally yielding to science. Researchers have scanned brains and tickled babies, chimpanzees and rats. They’ve traced the evolution of laughter back to what looks like the primal joke — or, to be precise, the first stand-up routine to kill with an audience of primates. It wasn’t any funnier than the muffin joke, but that’s not surprising, at least not to the researchers. They’ve discovered something that eluded Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Kant, Schopenhauer, Freud and the many theorists who have tried to explain laughter based on the mistaken premise that they’re explaining humor.

The next paragraph makes the core point:

Occasionally we’re surprised into laughing at something funny, but most laughter has little to do with humor. It’s an instinctual survival tool for social animals, not an intellectual response to wit. It’s not about getting the joke. It’s about getting along.

This all came about when a researcher tried to look into laughter by “making people laugh”, and ran into trouble — they didn't laugh much. So he switched approaches, and started watching people laugh, in their normal social interactions. And what he found was interesting:

He found that 80 percent to 90 percent of them came after straight lines like “I know” or “I’ll see you guys later.” The witticisms that induced laughter rarely rose above the level of “You smell like you had a good workout.”
More study was, therefore, indicated. So they did a study, where they presented a lame joke (“the muffin joke”) in certain contexts, and observed who laughed and how much.
When the woman watching was the boss, she didn’t laugh much at the muffin joke. But when she was the underling or a co-worker, she laughed much more, even though the joke-teller wasn’t in the room to see her. When you’re low in the status hierarchy, you need all the allies you can find, so apparently you’re primed to chuckle at anything even if it doesn’t do you any immediate good.

“Laughter seems to be an automatic response to your situation rather than a conscious strategy,” says Tyler F. Stillman, who did the experiments along with Roy Baumeister and Nathan DeWall. “When I tell the muffin joke to my undergraduate classes, they laugh out loud.”

Mr. Stillman says he got so used to the laughs that he wasn’t quite prepared for the response at a conference in January, although he realizes he should have expected it. “It was a small conference attended by some of the most senior researchers in the field,” he recalls. “When they heard me, a lowly graduate student, tell the muffin joke, there was a really uncomfortable silence. You could hear crickets.”

In other words, when you laugh at someone's joke — in some contexts, at least — you participate in establishing a hierarchy. And that got me thinking about giving presentations.

A bit of advice one often gets about presentations is that one should “start off with a joke.” Looked at with this study in mind, it seems that the purpose isn't so much to put people at ease (though there's some of that, surely) as it is to set up a hierarchy for the purpose of the presentation: the speaker, eliciting the laughs, is the leader; the audience, laughing, is lower in the hierarchy. That sets the stage for the leader to present the information, and for the audience to pay attention.

And note that the hierarchy is specifically for the purpose of the presentation. A willing audience may allow an inverted hierarchy ad hoc, to let the presentation run smoothly. I've presented to executives who did this and to executives who didn't, and the presentations to the ones who didn't were decidedly more prickly and difficult, though at the time it wasn't clear why. Mr Stillman's experience as a grad student presenting to senior researchers is an example of such resistance.

And, indeed, all of us who've done this sort of thing know that a “tough audience” — determined early by seeing that many of them hold back their laughter — is one likely to challenge or heckle the speaker, or simply “tune out”, reading email or doing other work, or playing Second Life or Free Cell during the presentation (and I'm not sure which is worse, really, between the challengers and the tune-outs).

What that tells me, as a presenter, is that failing to get laughs means more than that my jokes flopped or that the audience is fidgety. It probably means that the audience is holding itself above me in status and is somewhat blocking the open communication... and that, rather than accepting that my humour isn't clicking with them, I should work on breaking through that and using other techniques (such as audience engagement) to line things up.


Maggie said...

That's really interesting. So laughter is a way of ingratiating ourselves to higher-ranking individuals. It explains why my students laughed at this joke:

In a grocery store in Cambridge, a young man brings eight items in the "seven items or fewer" line.

The clerk says, "You're either an MIT student who can't read, or a Harvard student who can't count."

Ha ha ha ha ha ha

Yeah. I told them the joke because I was trying to get them to name potential objects in a program specification by identifying nouns, and nobody would do it.

I thought it was funny, but other people don't generally think I'm funny.

As Tim the Toolman says: Oooo, ooo, ooo
I'm the alpha-monkey. ;-)

Reading the book Influence: Science and Practice, by Robert B. Cialdini has changed the way I lecture a little bit. Of course, there's a difference between a college lecture, in which you are absolutely in control of the students' grades, and a presentation. But it might give you some ideas about giving presentations, or explanations of why some things you do work.

I just recommend it because it's fascinating, and it's chock full of exactly the kind of thing you're talking about here -- human behavior and the social phenomenon on which it's based, but specifically in the context of practitioners of influence, such as salesmen and other con artists.

And it's great for door-to-door salesmen -- both for them, and for you resisting them.

Dr. Momentum said...

A number of things came to mind when I read this, but two stood out, and both had to do with the idea that women "like a man with a sense of humor."

If laughter is about hierarchies, perhaps the women who say they are appreciating a sense of humor are simply happy in the hierarchy that has been established in their relationship.

Alternately, (or perhaps synergistically) if women observe men making other people laugh, perhaps they are perceiving a social hierarchy and are attracted to the men who have established themselves as being higher in that social hierarchy.

Maggie said...

I dunno... I like a man with a sense of humor, dear Dr. M. But I challenge the idea that I married you because you "established a hierarchy" between us!!

The other part makes sense, though, becaues I think women compete for relationships and a man who can make other men laugh has established that he's at the top of a hierarchy and therefore worth competing for.

Whether this is related or not, as the authors draw a distinction between humor and laughter, I've always thought that a person who can make an intelligent joke rather than become tangled up in negative emotions is a preferable person to be around.

scouter573 said...

This presents a very interesting result. People have long debated the evolutionary benefit of laughing. Kitten and puppy play has been interpreted as hunting practice and hierarchy establishment, but the benefit of laughter has been unclear. Some speculated it was some odd adaptation of coughing or hiccoughs. One previous theory was that laughter was a response to a discontinuity - the joke set up a punch-line that was unexpected, causing laughter; unfortunately tis doesn't really explain much. The research reported here ties laughter/humor to a social benefit - establishing social hierarchies. The joker is using humor to establish primacy, and isn't that what the class clown is trying to do? Interesting work.

Polly Poppins said...

I respond to things I find funny by either nodding or saying "that's hilarious" but I almost never laugh outloud, or even smile, at a joke. The fact that my personality type (INTJ) is one of the few that tends to ignore heirarchy fits with your conclusion.