Ha ha HA Haha. The Sound Of Laughter Tells More Than You Think

Apr 12, 2016
Originally published on May 31, 2016 4:04 pm

Hear it in Rio, Kathmandu or Timbuktu — it doesn't matter. A hearty, belly laugh means the same thing on every continent: joy.

But when we laugh with someone else, our chuckles may divulge more than we realize.

Scientists have found that people around the world can tell whether folks are friends or strangers by listening to them laughing together. And the ability transcends culture and language.

The study, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, used a simple experiment. Psychologist Gregory Bryant recorded pairs of college students having conversations. Some were friends. Some hardly knew each other. He then isolated out just the parts in which the two people were laughing. Each cut was only about one second long.

Then Bryant and his colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles, had volunteers listen to the clips of laughter and guess whether the people were friends or strangers. They ran the experiment in 24 societies around the globe, including indigenous tribes in New Guinea, tiny villages in Peru and cities in India and China.

People weren't perfect at the task. They were good at telling whether women were friends. But for other pairs — like two men laughing — it was harder. On average, listeners guessed correctly only about 60 percent of the time. That accuracy slightly better than simply tossing a coin (which would give you a 50 percent accuracy).

But the results were consistent across all the societies studied. That's a big deal, says Robert Provine, a psychologist and neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who wasn't involved with the study. "That suggest we're dealing with a very basic aspect of human nature," he says.

For instance, a Hadza hunter-gatherer in Tanzania could tell two college girls in California were friends by listening to only one second of laughter.

"Laughter seems to be done by all people and all cultures," Provine says, "but details about what it means require cross-cultural studies. Such research is hard to do and is rarely done."

Neuroscientist Carolyn McGettigan at the Royal Holloway University of London agrees with Provine. "This study is really impressive," she says. "The scale of it is an achievement." But also, she says, it suggest that, even in the most remote places on Earth, a laugh among friends is a special sound.

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Now we turn to the science of laughter. A study out today suggests there's a hidden code in laughter, a code that people around the world can understand. NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff reports.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: The experiment in this study is so simple we can try it right here. Gregory Bryant, a psychologist at UCLA, recorded students talking together. Some were friends. Some were strangers. And then he isolated just the parts where they were laughing.

GREGORY BRYANT: And then I just presented them to listeners and asked them simply, are these people - at the time they were laughing, were they friends, or were they strangers?

DOUCLEFF: Each clip was only about one second long. OK, here we go. Are these friends or strangers?


DOUCLEFF: That's super short. Let's play it again.


DOUCLEFF: So those happen to be friends. Let's try another one. This time I'll play it twice.


DOUCLEFF: Those are strangers. Yeah, it's actually pretty hard, and that's what makes it kind of amazing. Even in such a short clip, people could tell the difference. Laughter among friends tends to be louder, higher pitched and more upbeat. Laughter among strangers is softer, lower pitched and less energetic.

Bryant and his team gave the test to people in 24 different societies all around the world. They went to villages in Peru, towns in Slovakia, megacities in China. They even gave the test to tribesmen in Tanzania and New Guinea.

BRYANT: In every society, people could, better than chance, detect whether people were friends or strangers just by hearing these same laughs.

DOUCLEFF: Now, people weren't perfect at it. They were really good at telling whether women were friends. But for other pairs, like two men laughing, it was harder. On average, people guessed correctly about 60 percent of the time, which is only slightly better than tossing a coin. But in the science world, that means it's still a real finding. Bryant and his team published this study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Robert Provine studies laughter at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He says the findings are a big deal because they were consistent across so many cultures and languages.

ROBERT PROVINE: So that suggests that we're dealing with a very basic aspect of human nature.

DOUCLEFF: For instance, even a hunter-gatherer in Tanzania new college girls from California were friends just from a second of laughter. Can you tell?


DOUCLEFF: Yep. Those are definitely friends. Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.