What are you laughing at?

RUTGERS (US)—Laughing at funny things is universal, but what individuals find funny is not. An anthropologist studying the evolutionary function of laughter has found that for something to be funny, it must ring true.

“It’s universal,” says Robert Lynch, a graduate student in the department of anthropology at Rutgers. “Everyone laughs at something, though not everyone laughs at the same things.”

Lynch asked 59 undergraduates (26 men, 33 women; 36 Caucasians, 21 Asian Americans, and two African Americans) to watch a 30-minute video of stand-up comedian Bill Burr’s 2005 HBO special. His findings appear online in the journal of Evolution and Human Behavior.

He chose a comic as his tool for this experiment because the comic is entirely on his or her own without other performers or laugh tracks. Lynch selected Burr because the comedian’s jokes often turn on race and gender, and this has made him the subject of some controversy.

The student participants also took two computer-based implicit association tests (IAT) to assess their attitudes about race and gender. The tests measure the strength of association between concepts in a person’s memory. The faster the subject associates two concepts, for example “man” and “career” or “woman” and “cooking,” the stronger that association is in the subject’s mind.

Lynch also videotaped his subjects as they watched Burr’s routine and then used the Emotional Facial Action Coding System to interpret their facial reactions to what they saw and heard. The coding system allows researchers to classify and deconstruct any visible facial movement and helps them understand whether a smile, for instance, is sincere or insincere.

Finally, each student watched the routine alone. “There was no reason for them to laugh if they didn’t think the routine was funny,” Lynch explains.

Using the IAT to determine his subjects’ implicit attitudes, and isolation and the coding system to protect the sincerity of their responses to Burr’s comedy, Lynch concluded that, yes, people really do laugh because something in a joke or situation rings true for them.

“If implicit preferences affect our response to humor, then laughter may serve as a signal that we share the joke teller’s beliefs, biases, or preferences,” Lynch adds.

Lynch says his research suggests that since humor is entirely subjective, our laughter signals to others that we have a bond with them. The ability of an individual to  recognize their own, whatever that might mean, provides an evolutionary advantage, he explains.

We’re members of the same tribe. So we feel safer sharing more information about each other; we might share a meal, start a business, or get married.

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