September 5, 2022
Some laughs warm the cockles of one’s heart, while others scare or embarrass with their more sinister or snarky tones—but overall, more than 95% of our conversations contain laughter, reports Psychology Today.
People laugh for various reasons: to express amusement, agreement, or congeniality. Laughter also can signal intention.
Although classifications vary, there are three general types of laughter derived from theories in the literature, according to a study published in Joseph Wharton Scholars:
- Affiliative laughter expresses mirth, social bonding, and cooperation. Such laughter represents a sign of social acceptance.
- De-escalative laughter relieves discomfort and dissipates the stress in the room. For instance, laughing at an inappropriate joke signifies that no offense was taken and is meant to assuage social interactions. It also signifies to others that it is okay to laugh, and that the environment is non-threatening.
- Power laughter is an expression of superiority. It reinforces the power dynamics of social interactions and conveys mockery. Bosses often use this type of laughter with employees who are less powerful.
There is much variation in the vocalization of laughter, with sounds made being highly heterogeneous. Laughter changes—based on pitch, production methods, and articulation effects.
Research examining acoustic differences is limited. One framework considers laughter as either vowel-oriented or fricative:
- Vowel-oriented laughter is usually of longer duration and employs song-like properties. This laughter typically begins with a “ha/he/ho”
- Fricative laughterinvolves friction from the throat, with strong consonant sounds and grunts or pants.
Some experts hypothesize that the acoustics of laughter elicit emotional responses and direct the behaviors of others. Vowel-based laughs are seen as more positive than are fricative ones. Vowel cues can help the listener interpret pleased/relieved (i.e., positive) emotions versus anxious/embarrassed (i.e., negative) ones.
Positive laughter tends to be longer in duration and higher in energy. In particular, affiliative laughter is louder and uses less voicing.
In a study published in PLOS ONE, University of Wisconsin researchers in part examined the sex differences of laughter. They noted that the sound of laughter was not only influenced by sexual dimorphism (traits that differ consistently between men and women), but also by societal expectations.
Spontaneity and reward, which are exhibited via affiliative laughter, were of higher pitch and decreased voicing in both women and men, with male-specific semitones.
Female laughter was perceived as being more spontaneous when it had a higher pitch, less voicing, and was of longer duration. This finding could support observations that women are expected to be more restrained in their social interactions and speech, thus they laugh longer only after losing control, according to the authors. Meanwhile, men are free to laugh as long as they want sans assumption by others.
In other differences, louder affiliative laughs were associated with appeasement and non-threatening intentions in men but not women. Again, this could be because women are expected to be restrained, whereas men are rewarded for lack of inhibition. Women could be perceived as friendlier when their laughs are quieter.
Laughs perceived as highly dominant (i.e., power laughs) versus those viewed as spontaneous/rewarding were only similar in one aspect: the longer duration of the laughter. More dominant laughs have greater ranges in pitch in both men and women.
On a related note, researchers publishing theJournal of Experimental Social Psychologyfound that more dominant laughs were linked to greater social status.
Their research involved fraternity pledges (i.e., “low status”) and fraternity members who had been active for two or more years (“high status”). In the study, low-status participants who laughed in a dominant manner were perceived as being of higher social status. Moreover, low-status participants were more flexible to assume the role of aggressor and utilize a dominant laugh.
Research contact: @PsychToday