It’s No Laughing Matter

Berkeley researchers categorize our chuckles. Laughter, like a handshake, says a lot about a person.

In a small video room at UC Berkeley last week, researcher Mary Y. Liu cued up a tape of three fraternity brothers laying in to their newest pledge. Henry, a meek, moptopped teenager, tried his best to play the good sport.

“Being the dumb pledge that he is,” began one story from Matt, the fraternity’s alpha male, “ol’ Henry starts getting trashed, drinking more than everyone else.” The tale continues with Henry sneaking booze into a football game until he passes out on a public bathroom floor, a bottle of Bacardi rum still proudly clutched in hand. From this episode, Henry somehow earns the nickname “Taco John.”

On the video screen, Henry’s face turns to obvious embarrassment — perhaps even torment — as the group breaks into laughter at his expense. Quickly though, ol’ Henry follows them with a short laugh of his own.

“See that,” Liu said as she stopped the tape. “Henry looks to see if it’s okay to laugh.”

She rewound the video and played it again. “Watch him. Each time before he laughs, he glances at them to check in with them. That’s a submissive laugh.”

The submissive laugh, it turns out, is just one of nine distinctive laugh types that Liu and her coresearchers have identified in what they’re calling the Laughter Project. The other eight chuckles arise from feelings of embarrassment, amusement, nervousness, taking offense, love, a need to validate someone else, conflict avoidance, and a need to be dominant. Through the Department of Psychology, Liu and fellow researchers have watched hundreds of hours of people yucking it up, all in an attempt to decode the subtle nonverbal messages sent out by laughter. In the future, the research may provide a sort of dictionary to the varying laugh types.

In Henry’s case, he used a submissive laugh to gain acceptance into the group; no need to rock the boat when you’re still a pledge. By comparison, Matt, the alpha brother, used a hearty chortle to confirm his dominance when he teased Henry.

In both instances, Liu’s preliminary analysis also showed that subjects often used a laugh to camouflage their true feelings. While Henry went along with the group, the cameras also caught him displaying traits of real embarrassment — he touched his face, slouched his shoulders, and looked away from his peers. On other tapes of couples discussing their relationships, Liu watched as lovers cushioned their harshest words with a disarming snicker.

“A lot of us try to laugh things off,” Liu said. “I’d like it if we can learn how we use laughs, and not use them to hurt people.”

Until Liu’s research, researchers were mostly concerned with the effect of laughter on physical health — as the saying goes, “Laughter is the best medicine.” Indeed, doctors have noted that getting in a few chuckles a day is a boost toward good health. When a person laughs, constricted blood vessels relax, stress hormones are defused, and the overall immune system strengthens.

But Liu and her peers discovered that surprisingly little data had been recorded on the social signals sent by a laugh. Chris Oveis, a Cal doctoral candidate, and Dr. Dachner Keltner came up with the idea to categorize laughs as part of their work in the department’s Institute of Personality and Social Research. Liu, in search of a thesis topic, signed on to help “code” the laughers on videotape by meticulously documenting their gestures and speech to pinpoint the precise moments they let out the slightest guffaw.

While the fraternity brothers exhibited a less complex version of types of interactions seen in the animal kingdom, the couples revealed a more nuanced understanding of when to use a well-placed laugh. On one set of tapes, the couples are asked to recall the first time they met. On another, they’re asked to discuss the problems in their relationships. “They laughed a lot more when talking about their problems,” Liu said. “They had to diffuse all the tension created.”

Liu cued another tape of Randy and Elena, a couple in their early twenties. While the cross-room cameras pulled in tight on their faces, a facilitator’s voice is heard asking Randy to tell the story of how he met his girlfriend.

Randy first notes that the two attended the same high school but that he was a few years older than Elena. He starts to laugh — “I didn’t even know you existed,” he tells Elena, who immediately laughs with him.

“That hurts,” Liu said. “That’s saying, ‘I don’t mean to harm you with my cruel comment’ — ha ha — ‘I didn’t even know you existed’ — and then she confirms it with her own laugh: ‘You didn’t hurt me. It’s okay.'”

As Randy continued to use the disarming laugh, Elena was equally adept at offering what Liu identified as the “validation laugh.”

“Lots of couples do it,” Liu said as she watched. “Even if they don’t think what their partner said was funny.”

Liu and the researchers are still parsing precisely why their subjects laugh. After all, everyone has a different sense of humor. Is laughter strictly a personality indicator? Or, as in the example of the fraternity brothers, are our laughs affected by our status in the group?

Henry used his submissive titters to acknowledge the hierarchy, as long as they served as a constant reminder to the group that he was just another one of the guys. But even when it was Henry’s turn to tease the other brothers, and a chance to act as top dog was presented to him, he still exhibited submissive chuckles, waiting for others to laugh before he joined them.

On the other hand, Liu was particularly fascinated by Matt’s ability to present a dominant laugh both when he gave it and took it. “Now, this guy is interesting,” she said as she pointed to the student.

While dishing on Henry, Matt expanded his chest, lifted his chin, and let out some hefty yuks. He truly seemed to enjoy himself. But when the tables turned, and Henry told his story about Matt earning the nickname “Loves Intoxication,” the alpha brother still displayed a big laugh. At least, for a second.

“Watch,” Liu said after Matt seemed to show that he was able to take the joke. “Matt is taking it, taking it, and saying, ‘This doesn’t bother me at all,’ and then” — the camera catches him withdrawing, curling his shoulders in briefly, and then touching his face. He quickly returned to his dominant posture: chin up, shoulders back.

“It shows us that underneath he’s really embarrassed,” Liu said. “But he’s using his laugh to mask his embarrassment and tell the group something else.”

In the fall, Liu hopes to have her final analysis written. She’s still dubbing some of the couples’ tapes, and coding all of their actions will take a few more weeks. As a student, she has found that her research work has overflowed into her social life. “I naturally code people’s laughter,” she said after she put away the tapes. “I hear myself doing it — ‘That’s dominant laughter’ — or ‘That’s submissive.’

“I find myself expressing more submissive laughs sometimes,” she added. “It does improve the relationship of the group.”

And with that, she laughed.

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