Nothing can match the energy of watching a funny movie with an theater full of laughing strangers. And it’s not just your imagination: As scientists have found, we actually think jokes are funnier when other people laugh. New research in Current Biology shows not only that this is true for even the corniest of dad jokes, but also that certain types of laughter are much better at achieving this effect than others.
In a paper published on Monday, a team from University College London’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience presented evidence that people think jokes are funnier when the joke is accompanied by either canned laughter or spontaneous laughter. The latter type of laughter made people think a joke was even funnier, though — and this was still true when the jokes were certifiably corny. The study also revealed a surprising effect on autistic adults’ response to comedy.
Here are four particularly dad-tastic jokes that were included in the study:
- What state has the smallest drinks? Mini-soda!
- What does a dinosaur use to pay the bills? Tyrannosaurus cheques!
- What’s orange and sounds like a parrot? A carrot!
- What do you call a man with a spade on his head? Dug!
In the experiment, 72 participants heard these dad jokes, half of which were paired with recordings of “posed” laughter and half of which were paired with spontaneous laughter by the same voices. Participants rated the jokes as funnier when they were paired with laughter, regardless of whether it was canned or authentic.
But between the two types of laughter, the researchers observed that spontaneous laughter emerged as a clear winner.
“The addition of laughter increased how funny the jokes were perceived to be,” they wrote. “Furthermore, the increase in perceived humorousness was modulated by the kind of laughter: the addition of spontaneous laughs led to jokes being rated as funnier than with the addition of posed laughs,” they added.
The researchers weren’t simply aiming to see how hearing other people’s laughter affects perceived humor, though. They specifically wanted to see whether autistic individuals were susceptible to this effect, and how their reactions differed from those of neurotypical research volunteers.
They observed that the 24 autistic adults in the experiment rated the jokes as funnier from the beginning, and they experienced the same effects from hearing others’ laughter as the 48 neurotypical adults did.
“There was no difference between the neurotypical and autistic adult participants in the effect the different types of laughter had on the ratings of the jokes,” they write.
What the researchers aren’t exactly sure about is why this happens for either autistic or neurotypical adults.
“Are there effects of behavioral contagion, or of the perceived ‘approval’ which another’s laughter may signify?” they write.
This study adds a notable wrinkle to the research on autistic individuals’ social processing, an area in which they generally differ from neurotypical adults. A hallmark of autism spectrum disorder is difficulty processing social cues, but even though the autistic individuals in this study rated the jokes as funnier from the beginning, they exhibited the same effect as the neurotypical adults did.
“Our data suggest that laughter may also influence how funny the comedy itself is perceived to be, and that people with autism are equally sensitive to this effect,” the study’s authors write. “This might suggest that comedy and laughter could be more accessible to people with autism than typically considered to be.”
Summary: Laughter is a positive vocal emotional expression: most laughter is found in social interactions. We are overwhelmingly more likely to laugh when we are with other people, and laughter can play a very important communicative role. We do of course also laugh at humor — but can laughter influence how funny we actually perceive the humorous material to be? In this study, we show that the presence of laughter enhances how funny people find jokes and that this effect is increased for spontaneous laughter. This effect was present for both neurotypical and autistic participants, indicating similarities in their implicit processing of laughter.