Most people consider themselves at least mildly funny. You might not be a comedic genius, but you can make your friends laugh once in a while - even with bad knock knock jokes. But what if your friends are just laughing to appease you? How common is the polite laugh anyway? Turns out, it's way more common than you might think.
Researchers set out to learn just how common the fake laugh is. Joyce Ehrlinger at Florida State University did three studies to assess the phenomena of the fake guffaw. They put two people with opposing views on a controversial issue together in the same room, and asked one to convince the other on the issue. You might expect this to devolve into a lot of yelling, but instead Ehrlinger found the opposite. Since the people in the room didn't know each other, there was a lot of smiling, probably to diffuse the situation and not get into an argument with a stranger.
Those trying to convince their adversary then left the room with a false sense of overconfidence - as though they had done a great job in their argumentation. We're not very good at recognizing when someone is simply agreeing with us for peace-making, and when they really agree with us. The same goes for laughter - in most cases, telling a fake laugh from a genuine one is hard. Which means we all probably think we're funnier than we actually are.
The fake laugh is so ubiquitous in our world that there's even a wikiHow about it - suggesting that those who can't fake laugh actually need help, and can't get by in social situations. In case you're curious, here are some tips:
Cover your mouth. In the photo above the person is covering their mouth, this will work 75% if not 80% of the time.
Practice! While at home,read funny jokes in newspapers and on the internet.Then try to read bad jokes.Find similarities between the good and the bad ones. Make yourself laugh.
Smile. Smile politely or grin like you are about to laugh. If the person remains staring at you expecting a laugh, begin to fake cough (see FAKE COUGHING), or pretend you just remembered you had to be somewhere at that exact time.
So why do people laugh when things are very clearly not funny? The press release suggests a few ideas:
Ehrlinger maintains that because society trains us not to hurt others' feelings, we rarely hear the truth about ourselves — even when it's well deserved. And that can be a problem for overly self-confident people who carry around inaccurate, overly positive perceptions of how others view them.
Okay, but is this overconfidence a bad thing? Why can't we all just think we're hilarious all the time? It's probably fine not to train anyone to recognize a fake laugh, Ehrlinger said in the press release. "There's definitely no harm in some types of overconfidence, and I am not suggesting that we should stop living in a polite society," she said. "The worst that might come from someone believing that they are funnier than, in reality, they are is a bit of embarrassment or wasted effort auditioning for 'America's Got Talent.'"
But one might imagine some situations in which a good assessment of humor, or agreement, might be important. Like lawyers or doctors. "There are ways in which overconfidence is dangerous," Ehrlinger admitted in the press release, "and it might be important to set aside politeness in the service of helping people avoid the perils of overconfidence."
But for most of us, it's totally fine to keep on laughing, fake laughing, and not trying to tell the difference between the two.
Image: bowenmurphy / Flickr