In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Laughter

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews, Reference Works, and Textbooks
  • Journals
  • Phylogenetic Development
  • Ontogenetic Development
  • Laughter in Nonhuman Animals
  • Laughter and Well-Being
  • Pathological Laughter
  • Ridicule and the Fear of Being Laughed At

Psychology Laughter
Jennifer Hofmann, Willibald Ruch
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0189


Laughter is an audio-visual expressive-communicative signal, consisting of an initial forced exhalation, followed by a more or less sustained sequence of repeated expirations of high frequency and low amplitude, which may or may not be phonated as “ha-ha-ha.” Different inter-depending systems (respiration, facial action, acoustics, and body movements) are involved in the generation of the expressive pattern. Although it has been claimed that laughter is one of the most important nonverbal human interaction signals, comparatively little psychological work has addressed it directly. Still, research is steadily increasing and developing in various fields, in particular in psychology, medical science, linguistics, and more recently in technical domains (such as affective computing), to name a few. Also, laughter has been claimed to have physiological and psychological benefits of which only some have been substantiated with methodologically sound studies. Laughter is found in humans, as well as other species (some primates and rats; laughter is also acquired by other species when domesticated). Phylogenetically, laughter developed before speech and is supposedly of different origins than smiling. In humans, laughter is an important signal with social functions (i.e., facilitating social relationships), as well as emotion-expressive functions (being a nonverbal marker of joy). It is an innate behavior that typically shows around the fourth month in human infant development. Laughter is often elicited by emotions, and “amusement laughter” is the laughter type most widely researched. Early works often fail to make the distinction between laughter and humor, or use the terms interchangeably. Yet, humor may occur without laughter and vice versa, though mirth is a potent elicitor of laughter. Other emotions go along with laughter as well (i.e., relief, embarrassment). Furthermore, laughter also occurs in non-emotional states (i.e., pathological laughter or due to laughing gas). When studying the morphology of laughter, most works have focused on one modality: either face, voice, or body. In brief, the facial features of laughter typically entail the Duchenne markers (simultaneous and symmetric contraction of the zygomatic major muscle pulling the lip corners up and backward, as well as the orbicularis oculi pars orbitalis muscle, lifting the cheeks), an open mouth/lowered jaw. The involvement of further facial actions has been claimed but rarely tested beyond posed expressions. The laughter vocalization is marked by typical, recognizable patterns that go with specific emotional responses in the listener. For the laughter vocalizations, most results focused on the changes in F0, rhythm, intensity, and voicing. Also, some studies investigated laughter respiration and the bodily involvement (for example the H-reflex, the role of shoulder movements in laughter detection, etc.). Overall, the early-21st-century state of research still faces the challenge of a lack of laughter classifications, a need to determine how many morphologically different laughter types can be distinguished, and an agreement on laughter’s different functions.

General Overviews, Reference Works, and Textbooks

There are no reference works or textbooks on laughter. Interdisciplinary reference works exist for the subject of humor (see Oxford Bibliographies article Humor) and what makes us laugh, but it has been stressed that the two phenomena need to be distinguished: both can occur together, as well as separately. Chapman and Foot 1976 states: “A distinction can—and indeed should—be drawn between theories of humor and theories of laughter, and clearly theories of laughter need to take into account the numerous types of non-humorous, as well as humorous situations which can cause laughter” (p. 4). Provine 2001 states, “The most readily apparent feature of this theorizing is that most of it is really about humor or comedy (i.e., material that stimulates laughter), not laughter itself.” (p. 18). Therefore, while many interesting writings on laughter are situated within humor research, laughter can also occur without humor. In general, interesting accounts on laughter can be found in Darwin 1872 and his coevals (e.g., Gregory 2013, Raulin 1900). Also, Ekman and Rosenberg 2005 contains four chapters on laughter and its occurrence (authored by Eva Bänninger-Huber, Dacher Keltner, and Willibald Ruch). Glenn 2003 is a book on laughter in interaction, looking at laughter from a conversation analysis perspective. Furthermore, some review articles have summarized pertinent issues within the research on laughter: regarding the morphology, Ruch and Ekman 2001 (cited under Morphology of Laughter) describes the morphological features of laughter in detail. Regarding neural correlates, Wild, et al. 2003 summarizes the findings on brain activations during laughter (and humor). Regarding positive health outcomes, Martin 2001 is a broad review on the knowledge on humor, health, and laughter. Moreover, several relevant entries on laughter can be found in the recently published Attardo 2014, which includes four entries relating to laughter (by Goh Abe, Michael J. Owren, Wallace Chafe, and Sven Svebak). Devereux and Heffner 2007 provides an overview on research on laughter from a positive psychological viewpoint, highlighting psychophysiological approaches to laughter research and stressing the role to health and well-being.

  • Attardo, Salvatore, ed. 2014. Encyclopedia of humor research. London: SAGE.

    Interdisciplinary encyclopedia for humor and laughter scholars and students. Suitable for undergraduate students, too. Of particular interest are the entries on “Laughter,” “The Physiology of Smiling and Laughter,” “Psychology of Laughter,” and “Rituals of Laughter.”

  • Chapman, Anthony J., and Hugh C. Foot. Eds. 1976. Humour and laughter: Theory, research and applications. London: John Wiley.

    A must read for every student and scholar interested in humor and laughter. The third edition of the book was issued in 1996 by Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, New Jersey.

  • Darwin, Charles. 1872. The expression of the emotions in man and animals. London: John Murray.

    DOI: 10.1037/10001-000

    A must read for every student and scholar interested in emotions and their nonverbal expression. Contains many interesting descriptions of laughter (the “expression of mere joy”) and hypotheses on morphological features of laughter with changing laughter intensity.

  • Devereux, Paul G., and Kathi L. Heffner. 2007. Psychophysiological approaches to the study of laughter. In Oxford handbook of methods in positive psychology. Edited by A. D. Ong and M. H. M. van Dulmen, 233–249. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Overview chapter on laughter research in relation to positive psychology. Targets the laughter morphology, measurement, and its possible links to health and well-being.

  • Ekman, Paul, and Erika Rosenberg. 2005. What the face reveals: Basic and applied studies of spontaneous expression using the Facial Action Coding System (FACS). 2d ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195179644.001.0001

    Collection of basic and applied studies on nonverbal expressions assessed by the Facial Action Coding System. Suitable for students and advanced researchers. Entails findings on personality and laughter, laughter expression, laughter and its relation to grief reduction severity, agreeableness, and humor appreciation, laughter in psychotherapeutic interaction, and relation of smiling and laughter.

  • Glenn, Philipp. 2003. Laughter in interaction. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511519888

    Focus on conversation analysis. Suitable for students and advanced scholars interested in laughter functions.

  • Gregory, Joshua C. 2013. The nature of laughter. London: Routledge.

    Early account on laughter types, development, laughter in emotions (i.e., relief, pleasure) and tickling, and social functions. The original work was published in 1924 and republished in 2013.

  • Martin, Rod A. 2001. Humor, laughter, and physical health: Methodological issues and research findings. Psychological Bulletin 127:504–519.

    DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.127.4.504

    Review article on all research examining effects of humor and laughter up until 2000. Not specific to laughter but also covering studies on the topic.

  • Provine, Robert. 2001. Laughter: A scientific investigation. New York: Penguin.

    Often cited, easy to read, and gives an overview of ten years of research by the author. Needs to be followed up by a reading of the accompanying scientific articles.

  • Raulin, Jules Marie. 1900. Le rire et les exhilarants. Paris: Baillière.

    Early psychophysiological study of laughter and its elicitors. In French.

  • Wild, Barbara, Frank A. Rodden, Wolfgang Grodd, and Willibald Ruch. 2003. Neural correlates of laughter and humour: A review. Brain 126:2121–2138.

    DOI: 10.1093/brain/awg226

    Review article on investigations into the neurological correlates of humor and laughter. Collates and evaluates the studies published in the previous two decades.

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