Saturday, October 29, 2005

Why Do We Laugh?

This post relates more to evolutionary biology than economics, but it is a questions that I have always been interested in: Why do humans laugh? What biological or evolutionary purpose does laughing serve? A possibility is offered by V.S. Ramachandran in his book: A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness:
The common denominator of all jokes is a path of expectation that is diverted by an unexpected twist necessitating a complete reinterpretation of all the previous facts -- the punch-line...Reinterpretation alone is insufficient. The new model must be inconsequential. For example, a portly gentleman walking toward his car slips on a banana peel and falls. If he breaks his head and blood spills out, obviously you are not going to laugh. You are going to rush to the telephone and call an ambulance. But if he simply wipes off the goo from his face, looks around him, and then gets up, you start laughing. The reason is, I suggest, because now you know it's inconsequential, no real harm has been done. I would argue that laughter is nature's way of signaling that "it's a false alarm." Why is this useful from an evolutionary standpoint? I suggest that the rhythmic staccato sound of laughter evolved to inform our kin who share our genes; don't waste your precious resources on this situation; it's a false alarm. Laughter is nature's OK signal.
What do you guys think of this explanation? Can you think of other biological reasons or evolutionary reasons why people laugh? Can you think of jokes that are counterexamples to this explanation?

Source: Marginal Revolution


Rebecca said...

I don't think laughter is always nature's ok signal. For example, people often laugh at jokes that are puns; they are not laughing because something was inconsequential, but because somebody cleverly used the multiple meanings of the word. Though sometimes laughter acts as an ok signal, I think that that is an oversimplification of its many uses.

Another question along similar lines that I sometimes wonder about is Why do people say ouch when something hurts?

Anonymous said...

i think laughter as nature's ok signal is a really interesting way of looking at things. I think it makes alot of sense. But I think it works mainly with physical comedy. Whenever i know something is going to hurt or even if it does hurt, i laugh or make myself laugh because it helps take the pain away. Im telling myself that I'm ok and therefore making myself seem ok.

I don't think people tell like blonde jokes or other stereotypign jokes as "false alarms". I think its more to put the blame on a group of people that can handle being made fun of.

Rebecca's question is really interesting. It must be something learned because people in other countries don't all say "ouch" when they are hurt. They have their own words for dealing with pain.
-Kelly gaetano

Carl Youngdale said...

Don't forget the courtesy laugh, that's a laugh you use to make someone feel wanted in group conversation when his or her joke signals otherwise. So, bad jokes often create laughter also, albeit forced laughter. I think laughter is just a psychological response that only the most intelligent animals exhibit (e.g. humans, dolphins and apes). I don't know what evolutionary aspect triggers "laughter." Maybe some humans find laughter attractive in members of the opposite sex, therefore laughter arose from evolutionary necessity to obtain mates.

Anonymous said...

I think laughter as an ok signal covers an insignificant portion of why we laugh. Laughter provides a harmless outlet for negative emotions, and provides a coping mechanism for dealing with difficult or stressful situations. If people ever feel uncomfortable, they can always just "laugh it off." I think laughing as a coping mechanism is the main reason why we laugh. Thats why lots of buisness men always say they like to open their meetings or speeches with a joke. When the whole room laughs at this joke it eases any tension the speaker or the audience is feeling. I know there are probably tons of other reasons why people laugh, but I just thought that was a pretty good one to throw out there.
Brian Berkowitz

Anonymous said...

I disagree with the explanation of laughter as an OK-signal. First of all, this explanation covers very few of the instances in which people laugh. Secondly, it doesn't explain why people laugh when something is funny. Also, some people do laugh when people get seriously injured and everything is not OK.

Because laughter, unlike languages, is the same for all humans, and some other animals can laugh or smile (I'm just assuming this is true), laughter probably evolved before or very soon after humans diverged. It may have been some type of communication that helped humans group together and survive, but this still doesn't explain why people laugh when something is funny.


Anonymous said...

I agree with Rebecca. I think that laughing can be nature’s OK signal, but I also don’t think that it is that simple. For example, most of the time when I trip, I laugh if I don’t fall and hurt myself. However, when someone tells a funny joke, I don’t feel that I laugh to tell everyone else that I’m OK with the joke. According to his reasoning, if you are alone and you read a joke, you would not laugh because there is no one to alert that you are OK with the joke.
I think that one of the biological reasons why we laugh is because laughing releases endorphins into our brains which make us happy. I think that laughing is one of nature’s defense mechanisms against unhappiness or depression.
One of the things that I thought about when I was reading this post was why is it that when you are watching or listening to something funny when you’re alone, you don’t laugh out loud as much as you would if there were other people with you?

-Jessica Monk

Sam Ulrich said...

I think that laughter as a false alarm is only applicable to certain people. For Instance, I don't think that things like that are funny. Sure I might smile at it but I dont laugh really hard until milk squirts out my nose funny. My taste is more on the political humor side of the spectrum. Lewis Black for instance uses no slapstick in his stand up routine yet the audience is laughing through most of his show.
This passage makes me think of human emotions as a fire. When you start out your fire is small so your temper doesnt flare up as easily, but as you get older you start to get bigger and bigger, as does your flame. When extra stress gets added to your life an extra log gets added to your fire as well with dissapointment. Jokes and laughter and smiling are like taking those logs back out of the fire and cooling it down again so that you are not as likely to lose your temper.

Richie Rich said...

I agree with Berkowitz when he says that laughing is something that people today use to ease situations. Laughing is not so much as something to tell eachother that its okay, because when i think of agreeing with something or saying its okay, i think of a quiet and pacified manner that usually doesn't go hand in hand with laughing.

I think laughing originated as some kind of way to show similar lines of agreement along people when language had not yet set itself in our minds. By showing some kind of action, laughing is something we use to show that we enjoy it or agree with the person along these lines and is used to maybe acustomize ourselves to eachother. Laughing was probably used by prehistoric humans to agree on certain issues and survive

Richie Rich said...

oh and im chase

forgot to put that in lol

oh whoops, no lol's i forgot


Anonymous said...

1. Well I do agree that laughter can be nature's ok signal. I mean i did laugh for a few seconds when i found out that Andy broke his face... i mean i was laughing cause he didnt die and i mean he was ok... kinda...
2. Awkward situations- Horrible while they are happening... hilarious when they are over and when you look back at them. They are bad at first because you dont know the outcome but in retrospect things work themselves out in a way such that the events are ridiculously funny.
EX. When a friend, we will call her "KBU", went on a blind date she sufferedan awkward situation... Heres the lowdown... He tried to kiss her hand like a creepy waiter from an Italian resteraunt and as a reflex she poked him in the face with her finger. AWKWARD! At the time there was a really long silence and she was not sure if he would go on another date with her but they went on a few more dates and realized how funny the predicament was!
1. When your laughing with your friends over stupid stuff thats not a "OK" signal its just being silly and making jokes.
-Kristen Henderson

Katie Watts said...

As a director, I have to find ways to "force" laughter out of an audience in order to make a comic play come to life. Clearly this is an example against Mr. Ramachandran' statement that laughter signals a false alarm. In this situation, an audience member usually laughs because they can relate to the situation on the stage or they recognize the absurdity or satiric nature of a situation. To make sure the audience laughs, I manipulate what they see and hear to get the laugh. Their response signals to me that they are enjoying the show which means success on my part.

How do stand-up comics fit into this theory? Why do audiences laugh at Dane Cook or Dave Chapelle? Is it to signal to others around them that they are okay? Or do they laugh because they need a release?

Anonymous said...

I agree with what Berkowitz said. Laughing is a way to get rid of stress and make an akward moment less akward. Laughing as a sign of false alarm is something I have never really thought of but it makes perfect sense. The question of what is laughter brings up an even better question, what makes something funny? John Garrison