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Laughter is that involuntary response humans of all cultures share, and while we may think of it as a reaction to humor (the funnier we find something, the more we laugh at it, goes the common wisdom), devoid of any other qualification it is a complex (and virulently contagious) social phenomenon. In this post I study the science of social laughter, the history of epidemics of contagious laughter and I’ll detail how to get started creating your own outbreaks.
A small observational study done by Robert Provine in 2000 showed that humor has little to do with laughter, rather it is our social setting that influences our giggles:
Only 10% to 20% of the laughter episodes we witnessed followed anything joke-like. Even the most humorous of the 1,200 comments that preceded laughter weren’t necessarily howlers: “You don’t have to drink, just buy us drinks!” and “Was that before or after I took my clothes off?.” being two of my favorites. This suggests that the critical stimulus for laughter is another person, not a joke…
After excluding the vicarious social effects of media (television, radio, books, etc.), its social nature was striking: Laughter was 30 times more frequent in social than solitary situations. The students were much more likely to talk to themselves or even smile when alone than to laugh. However happy we may feel, laughter is a signal we send to others and it virtually disappears when we lack an audience.
Notice that Provine had to specifically exclude “the vicarious social effects of media“. The only time people laugh alone normally is when they are reading, watching TV or listening to the radio, these are simulated social situations. The effect is more pronounced with the internet because it is actual social interaction rather than one way communication. We laugh to communicate with others.
The Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic
Another curious feature of the social nature of laughter is its contagiousness. In 1962 a small town in what is now Tanzania fell victim to a spate of contagious laughing called the “Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic“. A few weeks after the nation gained its independence three teenage girls in a boarding school in the isolated village began laughing and it spread to the whole town. According to a 1963 report, a total of 10,000 adult men and women and teens of both sexes caught the “disease” after coming in contact with an infected person.
The event is known as case of mass psychogenic illness and the modern explanations revolve around intense religious and cultural changes that were happening to the town at the time due to its new-found independence and the replacement of old spiritual beliefs with western religion. The laughter acted as a collective catharsis.
Another example of mass epidemics of laughter is the “holy laughter” phenomenon in the Charismatic Christian movement. An article adapted from an 1995 report by Albert James Dager, describes it such:
Many churches are reporting spontaneous, uncontrollable laughter erupting from their congregations, even during times of solemn ceremony or messages from the pulpit.
The article traces the beginning of the modern outbreak to April of 1989 when Rodney Morgan Howard-Browne was preaching near Albany. Word of the laughing epidemics spread and he became well known as his services were broadcast on the radio. Another preacher, Randy Clark, experienced Howard-Browne’s holy laughter and brought it to a small church in Toronto where talk of the almost daily meetings turned it into a “mecca of sorts” by 1994. Holy laughter spread like a textbook meme, or idea virus.
The article also mentions Jonathan Edwards from the 1730’s thoughts on an earlier version of the outbreaks at his revivals:
One who is convicted of sin might well laugh or cry after he has felt release from the condemnation and control of sin, which comes with confession and repentance.
Laughter can be a perfectly symmetrical meme in that the mere sound of laughter is capable of infecting and inducing others to laugh themselves, creating the snowball effect of the most successful viral ideas, here’s a video demonstrating this:
The power of contagious laughter is well-known by TV sitcom producers who have included recorded “laugh tracks” in most shows since 1950, the sound of other people laughing makes you laugh.
This, perhaps, then is the reason things that make us laugh “go viral” so often. By its very nature laughing is a cathartic social action, and it spreads virulently through communities, both online and off. Evidence has shown that chimpanzees laugh (and maybe even rats) so we known that the behavior is hard-wired into our brains by millions of years of evolution. Laughter is one of the most primal and powerful social contagions.
How to Engineer your own Outbreak of Contagious Laughter
As we’ve seen from the above examples, contagious laughter is usually a social catharsis from a stressful situation, so given any such setting we should be able to create our own epidemic of laughing. The Tanzanians were undergoing intense and rapid cultural and social changes, holy laughter happens when people feel relief from what they perceive as their own sinful nature and the three guys on stage with the comedian looked pretty nervous. Laughter is the release of social tension.
So the next time you find yourself in a tense meeting at work, a test or quiz in class, or a particularly technical or boring session at a conference give it a try. Start laughing, maybe quiet at first or even mimic that southern dude’s laugh in the video above. Remember it doesn’t have to be in response to a joke or anything funny, you just need tension and a group of people. Make sure that the other people can see (or at least hear you) laughing. In the video example the epidemic really took off when the comedian put the mic in front of the laughing guy and let the audience hear it for themselves.
The less people want to laugh, the more they try to fight it, the more tension they’ll be creating and the more contagious the laughter will become. Also remember some people (and especially the presenter or the teacher) won’t appreciate the outbreak of giggling and they definitely won’t like it if they know you’re doing it on purpose so try this at your own risk.
The science of engineering contagious laughter is a new field, so experiment with it. Try different types of laughs, giggles, and chuckles. Try different situations and types of tensions. Make sure you report back the results of your tests, and maybe even try to get audio and video to share with the rest of us.
Someone in the comments just reminded me about Laughter Yoga, so I would remiss not to include this video example:
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