How to Make People Laugh, According to Science

September 8, 2015 | Reece Alvarez

A sandwich with a mortadela smile and olive eyes.
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How do you get research subjects to produce genuine laughter under lab conditions?

This was the question that faced Sophie Scott, the deputy director of the University College London’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience who researches vocal communication and in particular, laughter.

Laughter, she says, is understudied when compared to negative emotions like fear, anger, and sadness.

Even just seeing someone laughing can put a smile on your face (Photo:
Young Japanese girl laughing

“One reason might be that laughter, like other positive emotions, feels less important than negative emotions. Sometimes people think that laughter is a ridiculous, trite, pointless topic to research — and somehow not the sort of topic we should study with Science with a capital S,” she wrote in an article for TED.

Despite being a little-understood area of science, the topic has deep roots in human history going far beyond a knee-jerk reaction to humor, she says.

“...when humans laugh, we are engaging in a positive social emotional behavior that has its roots in our evolution as mammals,” Scott wrote in The Psychologist.

In order to study laughter Scott needed to bring subjects into the lab and record their laughs in an echo-free, crowd-free environment.

But how do you get someone to produce genuine, gut-busting, can’t-speak laughter in an echo-free observation chamber with no friends to joke with?

The Internet!

Scott turned to YouTube and its endless stream of falls, pranks, jokes, and comedy show clips to entertain research subjects, but the Internet alone wasn’t enough get people to laugh out loud.

In order to isolate and capture the unique qualities of laughter, Scott placed her subjects in an anechoic chamber, which features specially designed walls to absorb and minimize the reflection of sounds waves. Photo: Roberta F. / CC BY-SA 3.0 

Geometric walls of a sound-proofed room

“As with live TV shows and comedy clubs, we “warm people up” by spending time with them, watching stuff and laughing together, until we’re ready to throw them into the chamber to start recording their mirth,” Scott wrote. “There is some science behind this: Laughter is contagious, and it’s much easier to make someone laugh again if they’re already laughing. So we try and get groups of people to come in at once, and if possible, groups of people we know, and who know each other. We are thirty times more likely to laugh if we’re with someone else than if we’re on our own, and we’re more likely to “catch” laughter from someone we know than someone we don‘t know.”
Scott used a variety of YouTube videos to get her subjects to laugh and shared some of them in her TED article

Warning: You will likely burst out laughing from watching at least one of these videos.

1.  Capitalizing on the contagious effects of laughter, Scott used a video of an uncontrollable Skype laugh chain to provoke her subjects to bust-a-gut

2.  Clips of TV personalities attempting not to laugh worked as well

“There is something truly wonderful about people presenting live who have to try and keep talking through their laughter,” Scott writes.

3.  Popular American television shows like Arrested Development and Community were also effective

Scott also found that humor can be extremely specific, a video of Bulgarian contestants on the Eurovision Song Contest with back up performers on stilts was all it took to crack-up one of Scott’s colleagues — though this laugh may fall flat for some.

“Though some themes emerge, there is no one thing (video, clip, story) that everyone finds funny,” Scott writes.

As an example, pain-humor, the kind where people laugh at the accidents and misery the befall others, can be extremely popular, but when clips of people falling were shown to elderly viewers the reaction was not the same, “because older people are more acutely aware of the realities of falling.”

The context of humor matters, Scott writes, and no matter what she did she could not make herself laugh in her own study.

The effect, she wrote, was best described in a satirical article by The Onion titled, “That’s not funny; my brother died that way,” which eventually did make her laugh.


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