There is no doubt that laughter is a social activity. “Laughter evolved as a signal to others – it almost disappears when we are alone,” says Robert Provine, a neuroscientist at the University of Maryland the author of Laughter: A Scientific Investigation…most laughter comes in polite response to everyday remarks such as “Must be going”, rather anything remotely funny. The idea that laughter works as a kind of social glue fits with some other other observations. A baby’s first giggle comes at around three or four months, which also happens to be the time the baby starts to recognise individual faces. And the way we laugh depends on the company we’re keeping. Men tend to laugh longer and harder when they are with other men, perhaps as a way of bonding. Women tend to laugh more [almost fifty percent more] and at a higher pitch when men are present, possibly indicating flirtation or even submission.
Here is a brief on-line summary of Provine’s ideas. Oh yes, by the way, when the boss laughs, everyone laughs. Note also that smiling may be easier to fake than genuine laughter, which would suggest one reason why laughter evolved to signal social bonds.
And how about tickling? It is, according to Provine, the origin of laughter and a way for two individuals to signal that they trust each other. This seems excessively functional to a skeptical economist like myself. By the way I hate being tickled.
Thanks to Robin Hanson for the pointer to the 20 December issue of New Scientist, from which the opening quotation is taken.