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Laughing Matters


By Jennifer Shaklan M.F.A '02

Published Jan 1, 2017 8:00 AM

The way you laugh with someone tells a lot about your relationship.

Courtesy of iStock Photo.

Alone at a gathering, you’re anxious to find people to talk to but not sure which way to turn. And then you hear it — a burst of laughter from the group to your left — and instinctively, you feel it’s safe to head their way. How do you make this snap judgment?

According to a recent study co-authored by UCLA Associate Professor of Communication Studies Greg Bryant, humans can determine the affiliation between others simply by overhearing them laugh together for as little as one second. Being able to quickly perceive the relationship quality and social structure between others can help us draw important conclusions about a group, like whether they’re approachable, cooperative, welcoming or aggressive. Upon hearing an instant of co-laughter, says Bryant, “the subtleties of the different kinds of relationships people can have are revealed.”

In conducting their research, Bryant and 32 collaborators around the world played 48 audio clips of people co-laughing for 966 listeners from 24 societies on six continents. The clips, which averaged one second in length, featured laughter between two women, two men, and a woman and a man together. Half the clips were of friends co-laughing spontaneously, while the other half featured recently acquainted strangers who were asked to laugh. With an average accuracy of 61 percent, the listeners, who included people from all different types of populations, distinguished co-laughers who were friends from those who were strangers. When the clips featured two female friends laughing, listeners from every society correctly identified their relationship over 80 percent of the time.

While this may seem like a funny way of gauging the dynamics between others, possessing the ability to interpret this kind of information holds great value from an evolutionary standpoint. In our species, correctly “reading” others helps us navigate the politics that exist between individuals and groups. Co-laughter helps us accomplish that.