I’ve written before about how we are mostly unconscious of our many status moves – ways we constantly act to raise and lower our prestige and dominance relative to those around us.  If anything we are in even more denial about status moves involving smiles, and especially laughter.  We tell ourselves we merely laugh in response to things that are “funny” and no, that has no function at all, it is just a harmless evolutionary accident.  Not true at all:

  • “According to a classic study of laughter … in … the shopping mall – they documented 1200 instances of laughter, and found that only 10 to 20 per cent of them were responses to anything remotely resembling a joke. Most laughter was in fact either triggered by a banal comment or used to punctuate everyday speech. … We are 50 per cent more likely to laugh when speaking than when listening, and 30 times gigglier in a social setting than when alone without a social surrogate such as a television. … Our first laughs occur at between 2 and 6 months of age … triggered by surprise in a safe situation (think peek-a-boo). … It encourages babies to explore the world by making them feel happy and safe. When infants begin to engage in rough-and-tumble play, laughter signals that the intentions are not serious. … Through its catching nature … laughter can unify the mood and behaviour of a group. … An “in” joke can exclude outsiders from a clique, for example. Laughter can be used to show who is boss and malicious laughter is an effective weapon of intimidation.” (more)
  • “Right from the start, boys are the laugh-getters, the buffoons and the school clowns who entertain the giggling girls, … in lonely hearts columns, … men tend to advertise their sense of humour and women seek a funny man. Provine believes this shows … female laughter in the presence of men is a signal of submission. … Many studies have shown that dominant individuals, from tribal elders to workplace bosses, are more likely to orchestrate laughter than their subordinates, using it as a means of wielding power either to bond their followers or to divide and rule.”  (more)
  • “Berk showed 14 volunteers 20-minute clips from humorous television programmes … both cholesterol levels and systolic blood pressure fell.” (more)
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  • any studies have shown that dominant individuals, from tribal elders to workplace bosses, are more likely to orchestrate laughter than their subordinates, using it as a means of wielding power either to bond their followers or to divide and rule.”

    What does this say about stand-up comics? 🙂

    • andrew kieran

      the stand up comic is the common man’s philosopher. laughter gives them authority? if they can make you laugh, they’re worth listening to? or could it be “wise words from the mouth of a fool”?

  • Alex Flint

    Laughing is enjoyable and I love doing it, just as I enjoy eating the cheese cake that I know my taste buds are evolved to like despite its nutritional emptiness. I watch funny movies with friends precisely because I know I will laugh more in the presence of company, and laugh I do, and enjoy it I do.

    Robin, I realise you were only pointing out that laughter is indeed a social instinct, and I agree with you on that, but I feel there is a small and dangerous step from “laughter is a social instinct” to “laughter is vacuous and worthless”.

  • sam

    What about denying laughter as a status move? I have remained defiantly straight-faced in the wake of a joke two, and I am sure that my desire to signal superiority to the joke teller had a lot to do with it. Shameful but true.

    • Anonymous

      The idea has a significant amount of merit to it- somebody’s ability to be funny doesn’t have that much relation to their ideal status.

  • They should test for an interaction effect between sex and male status when predicting how often you laugh.

    The sex diff says that females tend to laugh more in the presence of males, but these are presumably higher-status males. When in the presence lower-status males, I think females laugh less often than the male.

    I see this in Starbucks all the time, or at night clubs: some dorky guy is trying to flatter the girl by laughing at everything she says, and way to loud. I mean, girls are not funny, let alone that funny. It’s part of a more general show of submissiveness and harmlessness — complimenting her on all sorts of things she doesn’t deserve praise for.

    I guess the strategy is that, rather than try to fake high status (which is not possible long-term; she’ll figure it out), he might as well desperately signal that at least he’s a thoughtful and attentive loser, not like the guys who can’t even be bothered to put on more than sweatpants and flip-flops on the way to their daily 7-11 grub fill, and who are bitter and angry toward females.

  • noematic

    ‘But the other reason the audience responded so favorably… had to do with the contrast between her appearance and her words. This is what many successful female comedians, from Joan Rivers to Sarah Silverman, have always known: if your lines are threatening, your face had better not be.’ (From here:

    Is there a pre-condition of harmlessness for women seeking to orchestrate laughter and if so, why?

  • kevin

    From the US version of the Office:

    I never smile if I can help it. Showing one’s teeth is a submission signal in primates. When someone smiles at me, all I see is a chimpanzee begging for its life.

    Dwight is an alpha male.

  • Dave

    Here is a little clip illustrating the use of humor in power.

    Would Dwight laugh with this guy?

  • Aron

    If a laugh ensues when no one is around to hear it, does it still amount to signalling?

  • Rob

    In this recent interview concerning his latest film (a sequel to “Happiness”), Todd Solondz makes some related astute observations about laughter.

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