Is it love? Professor’s research says laughter is a signal
Our laughter tells a story.
Whether we’re talking to a new significant other or an old friend, just seconds of a laugh can reveal more about our feelings than words alone may convey, said Dr. Sally Farley , a psychology professor at The University of Baltimore.
“Laughter is not about humor; it’s an honest signal of affiliation,” she said. “Laughter as a sign is more important than people have given it credit for.”
Farley, who first took a deep interest in psychology when she was in high school, has long been interested in nonverbal behavior and the vocal characteristics that communicate status and attraction. Her interest in laughter as a research topic stems from, of all places, group meetings with her colleagues. When someone Farley didn’t particularly get along with laughed at another person’s remarks, Farley noticed herself decidedly not laughing.
“It didn’t matter what was said, I didn’t laugh. It wasn’t deliberate. It was a nonconscious tendency,” she said. “I just stepped back and thought, ‘Oh, that means something.’”
Laughter has been the subject of a lot of research already, and Farley wanted to build upon that knowledge. Among the findings are that laughter is variable and has different types—meaning it can be quick, long, patterned or diverse; it is about social connection; and animals laugh, she said.
We’re still basically engaging in speech modulation even with regard to how our laugh sounds in early-stage romantic love.
Farley conducted three studies from audio clips of laughter she pulled from conversations between two groups: one included people in a romantic relationship spanning less than one year and the other used longtime friends.
For the first study, she had people listen to just audio clips of laughter pulled from the conversations to see if they could identify purely from sound one group from the other.
The second study asked the listening participants to rate the laughs they heard as either spontaneous—was it changing, loud, relaxed or natural—or vulnerable—was it baby-like, warm, breathy, submissive or scatterbrained?
The final study aimed to capture an international perspective. They selected a variety of laughter examples from their clips and sought listeners from five countries, Poland, Mexico, Portugal, India, the United States, to guess the group and type from those clips. Participants more accurately identified laughter among friends and Poland’s participants proved the best at correctly guessing while the United States, by a small margin, did the worst.
Overall, Farley said, the studies helped show that people tapped into what they call the vulnerable love hypothesis.
“They don’t sound as pleasant when they’re laughing with their romantic partner than when they are laughing with their friend,” Farley said. “We’re still basically engaging in speech modulation even with regard to how our laugh sounds in early-stage romantic love, meaning you’re still modulating your voice and that extends to laughter.”
Farley’s interest in laughter didn’t end with these studies. She wants to build on what she learned to see how laughs in relationships change over time.
“Do people's laughs when they've been together for 20 years sound similar to what they would for friends? That would be our prediction, because we think basically, this has to do with the underlying anxiety associated with not knowing whether a relationship is going to continue. So, I want to look more into this shared versus solitary laughter.”
Farley’s research was done in conjunction with Deborah Carson, a two-time UBalt alum (B.A. ’14, M.S. ’20) who currently works as a learning services coordinator in the Robert L. Bogomolny Library.
Learn more about their laughter research and read a piece about this research by Farley.