Laughing babies

17 January 2017

Interview with

Dr Caspar Addyman, Goldsmiths, University of London

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Laughing baby

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When do people first start laughing, and what do we first find funny? Caspar Addyman is a developmental psychologist at Goldsmiths, University of London where he’s been investigating baby laughter, as he explained to Georgia Mills.

Caspar - The first thing I noticed is that babies seem to laugh more than us and because they were doing it, it seemed an important thing to look into. The starting point for doing it was just by asking parents. We did a big survey all round the world about the things that made their babies laugh and the situations and the people.

Georgia - Have you found out what babies find funny?

Caspar - Well, it completely echoes what Sophie was just saying really. The thing that makes babies laugh is people. Tickling, but it has to be tickling done by someone that is really trusted and close to you. But then, beyond that, everything that makes a baby laugh is a social interaction of some kind.

Georgia - Okay. So the tickling thing, that’s funny isn’t it because you laugh, but when you’re being tickled it’s also kind of quite hellish in a way? So there’s a strange link between the sort of laughing and also being in a bit of peril.

Caspar - Yes. I think that’s part of why it only works with someone that you know very well. There’s a great bit in one of Darwin’s books where he observes that little children don’t like being tickled by strange men with beards. And yet, they seem to find it great when it’s their parents doing it.

Georgia - If I wanted to do stand up for babies, what would the most funny thing I could do be?

Caspar - I wouldn’t try getting a whole room of babies and try to make them all laugh! Actually, I’ve worked with some people in theatre and they say the best way to do that is to drop things. Babies like it when adults make mistakes. But if you’ve got a one-on-one situation with a baby and you want to make it laugh, my main advice is actually to take it as seriously as you possibly can. Really tune in to the baby’s own tempo and when they notice that you’re actually really attending to them, they going to be delighted and you’ll get big smiles. And then, once you spot the thing in the interaction that really catches their eye, then you’ll get laughs.

Georgia - Okay. So when you’re playing peek-a-boo or something with a baby and they’re laughing, why are they laughing at you? What’s the point, I guess, from an evolutionary point of view for a baby to laugh at you?

Caspar - Well, I guess, there are two parts to it; one is that they’re just very happy. They are enjoying themselves and it’s a indication of that, it’s a measure of pleasure. But it’s also a social signal to you, as Sophie was saying, an invitation to play. It’s an invitation to keep going with this. In some ways, you could think of laughter as the opposite of crying. A crying baby is telling you - please stop this. A laughing baby is saying - no, no, carry on, this is delightful.

Georgia - So it’s kind of a reward for you that you’re spending this time giving them attention? Were there any other sort of discrepancies between what babies found funny compared to older children and adults?

Caspar - I think, not unexpectedly, what babies find funny is the foundation of things that come later. It’s quite slow to build up and so jokes don’t really start to be recognisably as jokes until really quite late. Children from about two or three years old start to understand situations where you use the wrong words - look at the dog when you’re pointing to a cat. And that’s not really a joke as yet but they find it funny because it’s wrong and they recognise it wrong. But it’s only till about six or seven that they actually really understand what the jokes are and are not just laughing because everybody else round the table is laughing.

Georgia - Do we know when babies actually try and be funny back and make mummy and daddy laugh?

Caspar - That is a lot earlier. So that, I’d typically say is around about a year old. The classic mistake parents make - baby blows a big raspberry into their food, parents laugh and they find this hilarious. Baby realises this a way to make the parents laugh and keeps repeating this action again, and again, and again.

Georgia - Oh no...

Caspar - So they’ve learnt that oh, I can make you laugh by doing this.

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