Why do we laugh when we find something funny?

07 December 2008

Question

Why do we laugh when we find something funny?

Answer

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

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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