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It's not funny, it's group dynamics

The powerful role of laughter in small groups.

Most people associate laughter with pleasure and humor, and the physical act of laughter can actually facilitate healing in the body. Earlier this year, I posted an article about laughter as a way to survive, grieve, and make it through a difficult situation. Several readers responded and wrote about the importance of laughter as a painkiller, coping mechanism, and stress release. Now there is research that indicates that laughter can play a number of other roles as well.

Recently, researchers from North Carolina State University used jury deliberations recorded during a capital murder case to study the role of laughter in small group dynamics. They were particularly interested in using the transcripts of jury deliberations (of a capital punishment case) to study laughter because there is very little research on the role of laughter in communication, particularly when divorced from humor.

What the researchers found was that laughter in this situation was used in a multitude of ways; namely to question, control, and regulate relationships, procedures, and information in the group. For example, sometimes laughter was used to signal support for a group member; at other times it was used to signal a lack of support. At times people used laughter as a tool, intentionally and strategically, to control communication and affect group dynamics, or to shift power.

Laughter also served as a facilitator of flow in the group. For example, at times it allowed the group members to release some tension, or allowed them to acknowledge they had made an error so they could move past it. At other times, laughter was a way to deal with ambiguity and tension in a situation where a group is attempting to make important decisions and power dynamics are at play. In fact, researchers concluded that because laughter can be read in so many ways, it may be that one of the roles of laughter is to actually create ambiguity. This can create a space in the group to give them a chance to figure out what to do next. Laughter, it seems, can be about so much more than just being tickled.

Rob Elliot/AFP (Getty Images)

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