It’s Not Funny! Why We Laugh When We Shouldn’t

Funerals, breakups, and other serious situations sometimes elicit a funny (lol) response

Credit: PhotoAlto/Laurence Mouton/Getty Images

“I“I can’t break up with her. I’ll start laughing,” he says. Two years into a lackluster relationship, my friend Ben is ready to go it alone. His admission prompts a perplexed chuckle from our small group. “Wait. So, who’s going to break up with her?” I wonder.

“I don’t know, but it can’t be me. I guarantee I will burst into laughter.”

“I love thinking about embarrassing [or] awkward laughter,” Adrienne Wood, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, tells me. It’s what she calls “affiliation laughter” — the kind that’s more about the sound than the joke. Much like grunting or moaning — almost reflexive vocalization — affiliative laughter tries to take the heat out of the situation. “Laughter tells everyone not to take things seriously. It’s telling the people around you how they should react to your awkwardness,” she says.

Laughter during a breakup or at Grandma’s funeral (guilty — I blame the ridiculous music), is often an attempt to defuse an awkward situation. We laugh to dilute the seriousness.

“It signals non-threatening intentions and undoes social tension,” Wood explains. “When you laugh after doing something awkward, the laughter signals that you know you violated a social norm and it helps to appease the people around you. When you’re in an awkward situation with another person, I think the laughter might help to calm you down a bit and also signal to the other person that you’re not a threat.”

Traditionally, laughter fulfills a social function. Charles Darwin was among the first to speculate in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals that it is one of the earliest forms of human communication. And various observational studies monitoring behavior have since suggested that laughter expressed during infancy encourages bonding between children and parents. According to Caspar Addyman, a developmental psychologist at Goldsmiths University’s InfantLab, babies begin to smile at one month old and start laughing around three months. He found that babies often laugh in response to their parents’ playful actions, and believes that such humorous reaction serves as a powerful learning tool to nurture our early social connections.

We tend to laugh more when we are with other people, according to Sophie Scott, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College of London. “Social laughter is often much quicker to start and much quicker to end. We know that social laughter is also frequently lower in pitch. It sounds qualitatively different. Of course, in interactions, if you like the person you’re talking to, you don’t mind,” Scott said in a TED Talk. It’s what Wood refers to as “reward laughter” because it strengthens our social bonds with others.

Fake laughter, on the other hand, is often used to convey status or exert dominance, according to Wood. Politicians or spokespeople may use it strategically to guard their appearance or pretend an opponent’s spiteful words leave them unaffected — yes, even bemused. Nobody likes to be belittled. Sometimes we may even resort to laughter to control others.

A few years ago, my brother hiked the Great Wall of China with some visiting friends. He likes to take his Beijing guests off the beaten path and give them a real experience, whether they’ve asked for it or not. More adventurous than experienced, the group got caught in a downpour along the damaged stretches of the wall. For experienced climbers, these sections pose the titillating challenge of 80-degree inclines and two-meter drops left and right.

“If laughter is partly a way of releasing tension, then maybe laughter occasionally gets out of control when you’re in a particularly socially tense moment like a funeral or math class and all that energy releases.”

Having changed into their raincoats, sporting nothing but underwear beneath to keep their clothes dry, the group faced a dilemma: turn back or maneuver the steep incline ahead. Of course, the hiker mind doesn’t like to entertain the idea of turning around. As the crew free-climbed their way across wet stones, dangling two meters above the rugged forest terrain, my brother announced: “I don’t want to die in my underwear.” Everyone laughed.

Some people use humor in the face of danger to regain a sense of control over the situation. In these instances, laughter can relieve nervousness. It provides a coping mechanism for stressful situations. “Perhaps laughter serves a self-regulation function. That is, it is ordinarily associated with happiness and may help to down-regulate the nervousness. Or perhaps, laughter in combination with nervousness suggests to other people around the person that they too should help down-regulate that nervousness,” Margaret Clark, a psychology professor at Yale University, tells Headspace.

Hollywood seems to have long grasped this concept. But breaking the real-life tension with laughter or a joke during one’s “it’s not you, it’s me” speech may backfire. Ben is all too aware that his girlfriend will not respond kindly if he starts to laugh while ending their relationship.

Unfortunately, he may not have much control over his response. “Certain laughter, [like] spontaneous laughter, is largely uncontrollable. It’s why when you’re laughing hysterically you can’t even speak and sometimes have trouble breathing. Laughter is a very evolutionarily ancient behavior, so it can override more voluntary behaviors like speaking,” Wood explains.

The problem with studying inappropriate laughter is that it is a difficult undertaking. “It’s hard to get people to laugh like that in a controlled context,” Wood says. A few rare medical conditions marked by symptoms of inappropriate laughter may offer clues as to the brain circuitry involved in the process. Pathological laughter, which can happen after brain ischemia or stroke, is not just inappropriate, but uncontrollable. It doesn’t even need an emotional trigger.

Scientific evidence suggests that pathological laughter may be due to brain lesions and failed neurotransmitter transmission. “The [brain] circuitry that controls emotional expression first processes what is outside, the situation,” Josef Parvizi, a professor of neurology at Stanford University, tells NBC News. “Then it relates this particular situation to past experiences and how the brain has learned to respond. Then it triggers the emotional response. It’s all to some extent involuntary and spontaneous.”

Lucky for us inappropriate laughers, we are not alone. A quick internet search reveals that inappropriate laughter is a common global concern. In search of a cure or countermeasure for the impulse, one can find reams of online advice. One frequent recommendation? Leave the room as soon as you sense a chuckle coming on. MrsSpoon, a forum member on Digital Spy, suggests turning a laugh into a cough. Sad thoughts may also work. If all else fails, perhaps a genuine apology for your outburst?

“As for why we sometimes laugh in inappropriate contexts, I really don’t have a good answer. If laughter is partly a way of releasing tension, then maybe laughter occasionally gets out of control when you’re in a particularly socially tense moment like a funeral or math class and all that energy releases,” Wood suggests. Perhaps we all simply laugh when we shouldn’t sometimes.

I met Ben for a drink last week and asked him how the breakup went. “We’re moving in together,” he said and laughed.

Anne is the author of “Science of Breakup”. Available now

Author of “Science of Breakup”. Preorder now: MRes Biomedical Research & MSc Neuroscience Neuropsychology.

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