Why Inappropriate Laughter Is Often Contagious

Why it's so hard to stop when you get the giggles

Posted Apr 08, 2015

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Have you ever burst into laughter when it was totally inappropriate? If not, consider yourself lucky. There is nothing more horrifying than losing control and laughing hysterically in the midst of an otherwise solemn and serious event, such as a funeral, wedding, or another religious ceremony, or when giving a talk, an interview, or a performance.

Laughing in such situations is usually not a sign of disrespect of disregard but rather a response to an internal tension or discomfort which your mind tries to relieve by triggering a humor response.

Keep in mind that laughter served the evolutionary function of notifying the 'tribe' that everything was okay when something potentially worrying happened. For example, if someone fell out of a tree, it would cause alarm and people would rush over. But if the person immediately stood up and looked sheepish, someone next to them would start laughing at their 'prat fall', signaling the tribe that all was well, and eliminating the tension and worry that had gripped everyone seconds earlier. 

Similarly, inappropriate laughter is your mind's way of relieving internal tension, discomfort, or awkwardness, only the involuntary response set that gets triggered is so strong, you lose the ability to resist it. Indeed, once the attack of the giggles is upon you it is extremely difficult to stop. The more obvious your mirth becomes to others, the harder it is to contain. Even acute embarrassment, humiliation, or dreading the potential consequences of your 'misbehavior' does little to temper your horribly obvious fit of giggles.

Another problem with inapproriate laughter is that it can be contagious. As social animals, we often respond to authentic laughter by laughing ourselves. This is why sitcoms have laugh tracks; hearing other people laugh is more likely to make us find something funny and laugh as well. This is also why laughter sound tracks are typically recorded during live events—the laughter has to sound real or we won't join in.

Sophie Scott from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, London, writing in Trends in Cognitive Science found that people can distinguish between voluntary and involuntary laughter and that we react differently to laughter we perceive as ‘real’ versus laughter we percieve as voluntary or ‘fake’.

Because inappropriate laughter is, well, inappropriate, we are likely to perceive the giggles of any poor soul who loses it and starts laughing as real, hence funnier and more contagious. Indeed, Scott says we are 30 times more likely to laugh when we are with someone else than when we are alone.

Test Your Ability to Resist Inappropriate Laughter

How likely are you to laugh inappropriately? You might think losing control in this way would never happen to you but let’s put that assumption to the test. The following video is of a talk show host interviewing victims of surgeries gone wrong. The clip is four minutes long and has English subtitles. Can you get to the end of it without laughing?

Watch the clip first (the link will open a new window in YouTube).

Then come back to the article to find out what happened to the host of the show as a result of his inappropriate laughing.

Did you see the clip till the end? Did you laugh, were you horrified, both?

For those of you who laughed and feel bad about it, rest assured that all the characters in the scene are part of a sketch comedy show, so the clip is not ‘real’ (despite the host's amazingly real depiction of 'losing it'). However, it illustrates how inappropriate laughter can be quite involuntary and in certain circumstances, almost impossible to contain.

Do you have any experience with inappropriate laughter? If so, please share your story in the comments section.

For ways to improve your wellbeing that do not involve laughing inappropriately, check out Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014).

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Copyright 2015 Guy Winch

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