Science Questions

Why do we laugh when we find something funny?

Sun, 7th Dec 2008

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Scarlette, South Wales asked:

Why do we laugh when we find something funny?


We put this to Robert Provine, Professor of Psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore:

A girl smiling or laughing.Why do we laugh at something that’s funny? Something that’s funny is by definition something that makes us laugh. I’ll talk about why we laugh. Laughter is really a social phenomenon. If we look back to its origins, laughter, the ‘ha ha’ originated in the ‘pant pant’ of rough and tumble play such as you would find in tickle or the rough and tumble play of children. ‘Pant pant’ became the human ‘ha ha.’ With adults, however the arena of laughter has shifted from tickle and rough and tumble to a more linguistic and cognitive arena whereby, for example, the play of adults has to do with wordplay during conversations. You don’t have to tickle one of your colleagues to get them to laugh. You can tell them the joke. Even within conversation the key to laughter is the presence of another person. Laughter almost totally disappears when we’re alone. The key element for producing laughter is another person and not a joke. In fact we have followed people around and recorded what was said before people laugh. In only 10 or 15% is it anything remotely joke-like. Most laughter follows comments like ‘hey, where have you been? Ha ha!’ or ‘I’ve gotta go now, haha!’ These aren’t jokes so it basically is about developing bonds and relationships with other people.


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I don't know the answer but doesn't the person who asked it have a lovely voice! Richard1964, Wed, 3rd Dec 2008

Yes, and she made her point beautifully because she laughed when she asked the question and that made me want to laugh!

Chris chris, Wed, 3rd Dec 2008

right, others laughing makes us laugh.. so why do it? To spread pleasure through the 'tribe'? To help the group be cohesive? Does it release some happy hormones? (I would be very surprised if it didn't)

There're so many questions.. I have more.. JnA, Wed, 3rd Dec 2008

Its interesting how we can laugh histerically at someone who has just tripped over and fallen in the mud as long as it doesn't look like they were too hurt, but we don't have the instinct to laugh when a more serious accident has happened, like if they tripped over the side of a cliff instead of into a mud puddle. Madidus_Scientia, Thu, 4th Dec 2008

MS, that would depend on the person in question. If Gordon Brown tripped and fell in mud, i wouldn't laugh, I'd just call him a dick head. If he were to trip off the top of a cliff, I'd be in hysterics!!! Don_1, Thu, 4th Dec 2008

This is "Schadenfreude" - the pleasure taken from observing the misery of another.

Wikipedia: Schadenfreude dentstudent, Thu, 4th Dec 2008

This is an absolutely fantastic interview with Tania Singer on the science of schadenfreude and how men and women differ in their desire for revenge... chris, Thu, 4th Dec 2008

Children I have taught at school often laugh when they are in trouble with a teacher. It is a nervous laugh. How does that work? I think laughing is as much stress relieving as crying. We often cry when we laugh and laugh when we should be crying. Make it Lady, Thu, 4th Dec 2008

I remember when I was a boy I would always laugh when in trouble. I could't help it! Richard1964, Fri, 5th Dec 2008

Doesn't it occur unconsciously? I suppose something builds up inside and is let out as laughter... Chemistry4me, Mon, 8th Dec 2008

I was much surprised to hear that laughing stems mostly from social cues.
I often can't make myself stop laughing when I'm reading or see something funny - even if I'm alone. I have even awoken myself by laughing at something hilarious that happened in a dream. And sometimes have laughing fits in very inconvenient situations, even though I'm no longer a teenager! And I profoundly dislike it when people laugh at unfunny things...
I bet there is more to it than the researcher states. mariaguimaraes, Thu, 11th Dec 2008

I think this is the clue. There are unfunny things that people laugh at (in droves) but they wouldn't if viewing (or reading) it by themselves. I think this is what the researcher was alluding to.

Some years ago this was the funniest joke (the most worldwide appeal)

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn't seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his cellphone and calls the emergency services. He gasps: "My friend is dead! What can I do?" The operator says: "Calm down, I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead."

There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says: "OK, now what?"

JnA, Thu, 11th Dec 2008

Like Mariaguimara, I often laugh when reading something that I find amusing, or laugh at inappropriate times - such as at my father's funeral when one of his old work colleagues mistook me for my mother. If that had not been funny enough, his embarrassment, and the expressions of shock on the faces of other mourners disapproving of my mirth would have been, and kept me amused for a while. My dad would also have found it highly amusing, too, so perhaps we inherit our senses of humour?

Mine can, I know, get out of hand, and even aggravates my back problem and can bring on muscle spasms!

The take on life held by particular comedians can have me in stitches, and yet what amuses many others, won't even raise a smile from me.

I can laugh at myself,and the many stupid things I have done, more readily than ever I can at slapstick humour, and often things that are meant to be serious matters in, for example, a TV soap opera, will have me reacting as if it is a comedy show.

So, to answer the question, 'Why do we laugh when we find something funny?' I believe that we laugh as a form of emotional reaction or expression of our inner selves and to the triggers we receive that stimulate those emotions, and according to our make-up and life experiences.

Gordon Brown's possibly Freudian slip in claiming to 'save the world' may not have raised more than a smile from me, but the laughter on the opposition benches did raise a chuckle - let's face it, they probably all entered politics in order to change the world, and I wish I could remember that joke about politicians building castles in the air  for the delusional proles to inhabit, and for the corporates to collect the rents on... OldDragon, Fri, 12th Dec 2008

Girls like you are irresistible :)
Laughs is what make life bearable
yor_on, Wed, 31st Dec 2008

When I used to go to Church bible study we had a whole lecture about how important it is in Human beings to have a sense of humor and be able to laugh in life. I remember one of our church members asked, " Does God laugh " ??? Our pastor told us that God is a God of Humor, he has given us the ability to laugh and express our sense of humor through that act. I do believe that, I am a creation of God's image and if he works in the most amazing and humorous ways then, I too have that ability too. 

Look at the world of Science, All these scientists are humoring the Almighty God with their theories. Yet he is probably laughing at how foolish us humans are for wanting to know his power.

Irishgirl, Tue, 3rd Feb 2009

We won't be laughing for much longer. Chemistry4me, Tue, 3rd Feb 2009

Harharhar, what was all that about? Chemistry4me, Tue, 3rd Feb 2009

don't agree 100% with this statement. When i'm alone and my imagination plays around a bit i have a good laugh (and its not a recollection of a joke told mind you); and its not just me alone.

Because come on saying 'The key element for producing laughter is another person and not a joke' means you need someone around to laugh which leads to: only another person can make someone laugh...which can further lead to only when persons are around are people happy. You can see how an unhealthy dependence can develop.
SETF, Tue, 3rd Feb 2009

You mean to like to have people around you?
Never thought of it that way.

But ok. I'm warned. yor_on, Sat, 6th Feb 2010

Every person who answers this question seems to give their opinion based upon anicdotal experience. Is there any emperical experimentation being conducted as to the actual logical mechanism that triggers laughter. Understanding this mechanism could yeild benifits both medical and cultural. Nicolas, Thu, 6th May 2010

I'm afraid I can't offer evidence for this, but here is a theory which fits the facts nicely:

As with many social animals, especially primates living in large groups, we have developed alarm calls and other signals that travel. In our case they evolved into complex languages, but we retain some of the instinctive noises which for the most part cross cultural boundaries.

The theory is that laughter is a false-alarm call: it says "There is a thing of which I am fearful, but is in fact not a danger" or "That thing I was previously alarmed-about is harmless, I am massively relieved"

This can apply to all kinds of comedic situations: When something happens to another, it can be funny because we know that the actor is unharmed, and because it didn't happen to us!

Many stand-up jokes are set-up to make us think of something quite serious or disturbing, but with clever word-play startles us into realising that we had completely misunderstood the original signal.... false alarm.

"A guy walks into a bar...    owch! It was an iron bar..."

This theory fits with the play-fighting pant-pant idea: it signifies that the situation is playful, and not serious even though the actions appear violent. Bacon Wizard, Sat, 4th Sep 2010

You see, there's an old saying: laughter is the best medicine. seoerizer, Thu, 9th Sep 2010

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