Sophie Scott, a neuroscientist at University College London and part-time stand-up comedian, has made a career out of studying laughter. As it turns out, just because we laugh at something doesn’t mean we think it’s funny. More often than not, we use our laughter as a form of social bonding to show someone that we like them.

In a study conducted by Scott, she asked indigenous Namibians to listen to recordings of English people, and vice versa. She then asked each group to identify which emotions were being displayed. The choices were fear, anger, surprise, disgust, sadness, happiness, relief contentment or triumph.

Out of all the emotions, laughter was the most recognizable in both groups. Scott said about the findings, “Almost immediately, it started to look different from the other positive emotions.”

Before long, the researcher was noticing more observations about laughter, including that laughter isn’t just reserved for moments we find humorous, and that often, we’re laughing at something we said rather than being prompted by others. “People genuinely think they are mostly laughing at other people’s jokes, but within a conversation, the person who laughs most at any one time is the person who is talking.”

Scott told the BBC that she now sees laughter as a social emotion that helps us to bond, meaning that laughter isn’t just reserved for those “ha ha” moments. We also laugh to show others our positive feelings. Scott said, “When you laugh with people, you show them that you like them, you agree with them, or that you are in same group as them. Laughter is an index of the strength of a relationship.”

Why we laugh

Based on other laughter-related research, laughter can even prompt people to share personal information about themselves, or, as Scott notes, can help couples get through a difficult or stressful event.

Because of her research the neuroscientist believes that we find people funny because we like them, rather than liking someone because they are funny. “You’ll hear someone say ‘he’s got a great sense of humour and I really fancy him because of it’. What you mean is ‘I fancy him and I show him I like him by laughing when I’m around him.’”

Being around someone is actually one of the keys to more frequent laughter. Scott said, “You are 30 times more likely to laugh if you’re with someone else.”

What’s next for this laughter researcher? Scott has built a new experiment at London’s Science Museum that asks people to judge the authenticity of audio of people laughing or crying.

If you want to be a part of the research, you can visit the exhibit at the museum every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday until April 18. It only takes five minutes, and anyone older than 3 years old can participate.

“Search for papers on laughter and you'll get a paltry 175. Why the disparity? Well, one reason might be that laughter, like other positive emotions, feels less important than negative emotions,” said Scott.

“Sometimes people think that laughter is a ridiculous, trite, pointless topic to research … I think it's a fascinating social behaviour, it is essential to study.”

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