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What You “Say” With Laughter

Ever wonder what message you're actually sending when you giggle or guffaw?

Key points

  • Is laughter a reflexive response to certain stimuli or does it send an important message? This is a longstanding debate.
  • Laughter may relate to our vulnerability and that of others people with whom we interact.
  • It is possible to generate testable predictions to explain differences in the laugh response.

Every other week I come across an article or video referencing laughter or humor. Pundits disagree on whether a politician’s sarcastic responses helped or hurt her debate performance. A movie producer claims a sexual misconduct allegation stemmed from misinterpreted, but good-humored banter. Or a round table of stand-up comedians express their frustration with today’s “hypersensitive” audiences. Rarely does anyone stop to ask what exactly makes something amusing to one person but not another, or why we should respond with such a peculiar vocalization. Rarer still are those daring enough to volunteer an answer.

Of all the universal behaviors attributed to the human species, laughter ranks among the most difficult to corral within a single, comprehensive theoretical framework. Several still-popular explanations were formulated millennia ago (Perks, 2012). More recent versions are a century or more old (Nelson, 2012), with minor variations arising every few years (e.g., Bryant and Aktipis, 2014; Hurley et al., 2011). Each was crafted by incredibly bright, well-informed philosophers, psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists, communication experts, and neurologists, and yet not one has been widely accepted as conclusive.

A Biologist's Take on Humor

Mine is a view from the “outside”. I was a wildlife biologist when I had my first intuition about this enigmatic behavior. I hadn’t a clue laughter or humor theories even existed, let alone that a “grand unified theory” was thought impossible by virtually every scholar in the field (e.g., Apte, 1985; Kozintsev, 2010; Provine, 2000). Still, my take on laughter was so simple, so comprehensive, there seemed only two possible outcomes: I’d either be an extremely lucky, paradigm shifting rebel of the sort one reads about in history-of-science textbooks, or one of a thousand self-deluded wannabes. As of this writing, the jury is still out.

Centuries of observation and experimentation have led to very different interpretations (Morreall, 1986). Some recognize laughter as a response to incongruity, especially one that surprises us or defies expectation, but later gets resolved in some manner that is not overly detrimental. Others consider it a means of releasing nervous tension or energy, where one’s anxiety turns out to be unwarranted. Still others recognize that laughter conveys information to others, either of one’s dominant social standing, a desire to cultivate interpersonal relationships, or simply to encourage play behavior. There are countless examples that support each conclusion.

An Affirmation of One's Vulnerability

I would argue, instead, that laughter is best defined as a vocal affirmation of mutual vulnerability, a way of saying, “I’d like to remind you that we share some degree of vulnerability, frailty, or limitation”. I include “vocal” because we may have non-vocal ways of expressing this sentiment, and “affirmation” because we tend to do it repeatedly, insecure creatures that we are. But the heart of the Mutual Vulnerability Theory is right in the name.

For me, there is no understanding laughter without first understanding vulnerability (Simon, 2020a). Every expression of laughter I’m aware of is preceded by a conscious perception, or highlighting, of vulnerability. Some noticeable change in status has occurred—for the one laughing, for others with whom he or she is identifying, or both.

Imagine yourself and a close friend walking on an icy sidewalk. Suddenly she slips, almost falling down, prompting you to laugh. Everyone is nearly always susceptible to falling, but at that moment your friend’s shortcoming was highlighted—brought to the forefront of consciousness. Your laughter would act as a sympathetic reminder that you too have similar limitations, and interpreted by your friend as a sign her misstep was not viewed too negatively. The status relationship you both had prior isn’t going to be altered in any appreciable way. Yours might be described as “Lifting Laughter” because your friend’s status dipped slightly, and your intent was to lift her back up.

Similarly, your friend might chuckle at her own somewhat embarrassing stumble, for she has reason to remind you of your susceptibility to gravity. “Oops. That was me, but it could easily have been you, right?” Think of hers as “Self-Lifting Laughter”. She’s soliciting a positive response on your part, a confirmation that her status hasn’t substantially diminished in your eyes.

Laughing at Someone vs. Laughing With Someone

What if we believe someone’s status is inflated, undeserved, or being misused? In that case, an expression of mutual vulnerability would have a corrective effect. When a setback becomes apparent, we might offer “Lowering Laughter,” sometimes referred to as laughing “at” someone rather than “with” them. “You may think you’re better than me, but what just happened makes it clear that’s not the case.” Or, if our own status has increased unjustifiably, perhaps as a result of a lucky windfall or an overly generous compliment, we’d have reason to convey the tenuous nature of our status bump with some mollifying “Self-Lowering Laughter”.

Four different motivations prompting a single, universal message.

The connection between a sense of vulnerability and laughter seems to have been hiding in plain site. We know such feelings have been explicitly linked to tickle responses (Hall and Allin, 1897), and that “tickle laughter” is not reflexive, but rather influenced by emotional, cognitive, and social factors (Provine, 2004). Where no feeling of vulnerability exists, as when someone isn’t sufficiently sensitive or apprehensive, or conversely, when experiencing excessive pain or fear (i.e., feeling not just vulnerable, but seriously “deficient”), then laughter is checked. We find vulnerability and status shifts sneaking into other theories as well: as one encounters, and then resolves, perplexing incongruities; while alternating between states of anxiety and relief; in the social insecurities that prompt expressions of superiority; buffering the status swings inherent in play; and the attraction we might have for those expressing understanding.

From this new vantage point, we can generate testable predictions to explain differences in the laugh response. First, each will involve a subjective determination of normality, vulnerability, or deficiency. What seems a mundane activity to me, you might consider amusing folly. A minor, rather comical setback to you, someone else might think a terribly serious impediment. Age, personal history, knowledge base, cultural background, political and religious leanings…they invariably shape these assessments. Second, laughter necessitates a desire to communicate feelings of shared vulnerability, an emotion influenced by factors such as mood, the relationship we have with our interlocutors, and the social context in which we find ourselves.

Understanding the many sources of variation in our laugh response is among the 25 “grand” questions scholars have raised about laughter and humor over the millennia (Simon, 2020b).

Copyright: John Charles Simon


Apte, M. (1985). Humor and Laughter: An Anthropological Approach. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Bryant, G. A. and Aktipis, C. A. (2014). The Animal Nature of Spontaneous Human Laughter. Evolution and Human Behavior 35: 327–335.

Hall, G. S. and Allin, A. (1897). The Psychology of Tickling, Laughing, and the Comic. American Journal of Psychology 9(1): 1-41.

Hurley, M. M., Dennett, D. C., and Adams Jr., R. B. (2011). Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind. Boston, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Kozintsev, A. (2010). The Mirror of Laughter. Translated by Richard P. Martin. New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers.

Morreall, J. (Ed.) (1986). The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor. New York: SUNY Press.

Nelson, J. K. (2012). What Made Freud Laugh: An Attachment Perspective on Laughter. New York: Routledge.

Perks, L.G. (2012). The Ancient Roots of Humor Theory. Humor 25(2): 119-132.

Provine, R. R. (2000). Laughter: A Scientific Investigation. New York, NY: Penguin Press.

Provine, R. R. (2004). Laughing, Tickling, and the Evolution of Speech and Self. Current Directions in Psychological Science 13(6): 215-218.

Simon, J. C. (2020a). Laughter Redefined. The Israeli Journal of Humor Research 9 (1) 72-83.

Simon, J. C. (2020b). Essential Attributes of a Comprehensive Theory of Laughter. The European Journal of Humour Research 8 (1) 45-54.

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