Laughter as a Survival Instinct
> 3/13/2007 10:04:11 AM

While people often see their laughter as the proper product of a well-told joke or amusing situation, researchers indicate that the process evolved as a means of affirming communal bonds and ensuring one's survival. It may even literally help to fight off illness. Laughter in social situations is nearly impossible to fake with grace, but it's more likely to reflect a desire for camaraderie than a great sense of humor.

To test theories on the larger purpose of laughter, researchers conducted a test using a uninspired joke on groups in several different situations: the first group was approached to complete a survey regarding spending habits. The joke found its way into each interview, during which some subjects were told of the possibility of receiving a cash prize for their participation. Researchers found that those told of the prize were more likely to laugh, and one might assume that they did this in order to win the favor of the interviewer. The study's second section added variations to that conclusion while reaffirming the fact that laughter responses change based on the nature of the relationship between the speaker and the listener. A group of women watched the same joke being told on video. Some were told that they were the boss and the speaker an underling, where some were told that the speaker was either a boss or a co-worker. Those who played the role of boss did not laugh much, while those in lower positions laughed considerably more even though the speaker had no way of gauging their responses. Researchers believe that this reaction stemmed from an intrinsic desire for kinship between individuals who see each other as peers, where those in commanding positions like to maintain some form of distance between themselves and their "underlings," seeing no immediate benefit to be gained from responding to their questionable attempts at humor.

Patterns of laughter and its related behaviors in our mammalian ancestors indicates that it serves them primarily as a way of distinguishing friend from foe, and while our processes are more sophisticated, their central purpose remains unchanged. Laughter originated, according to anthropologists, as a form of reassuring communication among primates, operating on the same level as the simulated act of tickling an infant in order to elicit a loving response. Mammals who do not laugh in groups are shunned and occasionally attacked, losing an evolutionary edge. The act itself also stimulates brain activity and, some say, strengthens the immune system and helps the body fight off disease. Some studies even indicate that cancer patients who are encouraged to laugh regularly have better eventual outcomes. On a smaller scale, one's laughter will usually become more pronounced when watching a funny show or movie if the experience is shared with another person. This may explain network sitcoms' continued reliance on pre-recorded laugh tracks. Viewers receive cues to chuckle whether the jokes at hand are funny or not. So maybe that particular episode, on repeated viewing, will not turn out to be as funny as you remember it. But this confusion does not reflect a poor sense of humor. It stems from a desire to find companionship and shared experience, which is more important than any joke in the first place.


There is a joke on the internet that out of your family and friends you might know one with a mental illness. Someone sent it to me. How do I fight this?
Posted by: Rosemarie Paulling 5/18/2007 2:23:19 AM

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