Despite the wide range of theoretical explanations for human laughter, it is generally agreed to function, at least in part, as a social signal. We tested the hypothesis that laughter serves as a signal of group affiliation. Participants viewed a video clip depicting a confederate partner of unknown group affiliation displaying either a neutral expression, a smile, or laughter in response to a joke told at the expense of a member of the in-group or the out-group. Participants then decided whether to help the confederate in a fictional and incentivized economic game. When viewed in response to a joke told at the expense of the in-group member, participants were less likely to help after viewing the laughter clip in comparison to the neutral and smiling clips. However, when viewed in response to a joke told at the expense of the out-group member, participants were more likely to help after viewing the smiling clip in comparison to the neutral and laughter clips. Taken together, these findings suggest that laughter may serve to signal affiliation, albeit only among out-group members.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Availability of Data and Material:
Data and stimuli can be found here: https://osf.io/zkvdf/?view_only=2f2709d23fa64fffa196a655c216a250.
Alexander, R.D. (1986). Ostracism and indirect reciprocity: The reproductive significance of humor. Ethology and Sociobiology, 7, 253–270
Apte, M.L. (1985). Humor and laughter: An anthropological approach. Ithaca: Cornell University Press
Attardo, S. (1993). Violation of conversational maxims and cooperation: The case of jokes. Journal of Pragmatics, 19(6), 537–558
Bachorowski, J.A., & Owren, M.J. (2001). Not all laughs are alike: Voiced but not unvoiced laughter readily elicits positive affect. Psychological Science, 12, 252–257
Bourhis, R.Y., Gadfield, N.J., Giles, H., & Tajfel, H. (1977). Context and ethnic humour in intergroup relations. In Chapman, A.J., & Foot, H.C. (Eds.), It’s a funny thing, humour (pp. 261–265). New York: Pergamon Press
Brandts, J., & Holt, C. (1992). An experimental test of equilibrium dominance in signaling games. American Economic Review, 82(5), 1350–1365
Brown, M., Sacco, D.F., & Young, S.G. (2018). Spontaneous laughter as an auditory analog to affiliative intent. Evolutionary Psychological Science, 4, 285–291
Bryant, G.A., & Aktipis, C.A. (2014). The animal nature of spontaneous human laughter. Evolution and Human Behavior, 35, 327–335
Buhrmeister, M., Kwang, T., & Gosling, S.D. (2011). Amazon’s Mechanical Turk: A new source of inexpenseive, yet high-quality data? Perspectives in Psychological Science, 6, 3–5
Cohn, J.F., & Ekman, P. (2005). Measuring facial action. In Rosenthal, J.A., & Scherer, K.R. (Eds.), Handbook of methods in nonverbal behavior research (pp. 9–64). New York: Oxford University Press
Cowen, A.S., & Keltner, D. (in preparation). Mapping the varieties of humor signaled by different laughs.
Curran, W., McKeown, G.J., Rychlowska, M., Andre, E., Wagner, J., & Lingenfelser, F. (2018). Social context disambiguates the interpretation of laughter. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 1–12
Deacon, T.W. (1997). The symbolic species: The co-evolution of launguage and the brain. New York: W. W. Norton
Dezecache, G., & Dunbar, R.I. (2012). Sharing the joke: The size of natural laughter groups. Evolution and Human Behavior, 33, 775–779
Dixon, N.F. (1980, January). Humor-cognitive alternative to stress. In Bulletin of the British Psychological Society (Vol. 33, No. JAN, pp. 18–18). St Andrews House, 48 Princess Rd East, Leicester, Leics, England Le1 7dr: British Psychological Soc.
Dunbar, R.I., Baron, R., Frangou, A., Pearce, E., van Leeuwen, E.J., Stow, J., & van Vugt, M. (2012). Social laughter is correlated with an elevated pain threshold. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 279(1731):1161–1167.
Edmonson, M.S. (1983). Notes on laughter. Anthropologiecal Linguistics, 29, 23–33
Eibl-Eibesfeldt, I. (1989). Human ethology. New York: Aldine de Gruyter
Ekman, P. (1989). An argument and evidence about universals in facial expressions. In Wagner, H., & Manstead, A. (Eds.), Handbook of social psychophysiology (pp. 143–164). Oxford, England: John Wiley
Ekman, P., Davidson, R.J., & Friesen, W.V. (1990). The Duchenne smile: Emotional expression and brain physiology: II. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 342–353
Ekman, P., Friesen, W.V., & Hager, J.C. (2002). The facial action coding system. Salt Lake City: Research Nexus, Network Research Information
Frank, M.G., Ekman, P., & Friesen, W.V. (1993). Behavioral markers and the recognizability of the smile of enjoyment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 83–93
Fridlund, A.J. (1994). Human facial expression: An evolutionary view. New York: Academic Press
Fuhr, M. (2002). Coping humor in early adolescence. Humor, 15, 283–304
Gervais, M., & Wilson, D.W. (2005). The evolution and functions of laugher and humor: A synthetic approach. The Quarterly Review of Biology, 80(4), 395–430
Grammer, K., & Eibl-Eibesfeldt, I. (1990). The ritualization of laughter. In Koch, W. (Ed.), In. Naturlichkeit der Sprache und der Kultur: Acta Colloquii (pp. 192–214). Bochum: Brockmeyer
Grunner, C.R. (1997). The game of humor: A comprehensive theory of why we laugh. Brunswick, NJ: Transaction
Hasson, O. (1997). Towards a general theory of biological signaling. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 185, 139–156
Hodson, G., Rush, J., & MacInnis, C.C. (2010). A Joke Is Just a Joke (Except When It Isn’t): Cavalier Humor Beliefs Facilitate the Expression of Group Dominance Motives. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(4), 660–682
Horton, J.J., Rand, D.G., & Zeckhauser, R.J. (2011). The online laboratory: Conducting experiments in a real labor market. Experimental Economics, 14, 399–425
Janes, L.M., & Olson, J.M. (2000). Jeer pressure: The behavioral effects of observing ridicule of others. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26(4), 474–485
Jung, W.E. (2003). The inner eye theory of laughter: Mindreader signals cooperator value. Evolutionary Psychology, 1, 214–253
Keltner, D., & Bonanno, G.A. (1997). A sutdy of laughter and dissociation: distinct correlates of laughter and smiling during bereavement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 687–702
Kubie, L.S. (1971). The destructive potential of humor in psychotherapy. American Journal of Psychiatry, 127(7), 861–866
Kuiper, N.A., & Martin, R.A. (1998). Laughter and stress in daily life: Relation to positive and negative affect. Motivation and Emotion, 22, 133–153
Landis, J.R., & Koch, G.G. (1977). The measurement of observer agreement for categorical data. Biometrics, 159–174.
Lavan, N., Scott, S.K., & McGettigan, C. (2016). Laugh like you mean it: Authenticity modulates acoustic, physiological and perceptual properties of laughter. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 40, 133–149
Lavan, N., Short, B., Wilding, A., & McGettigan, C. (2018). Impoverished encoding of speaker identity in spontaneous laughter. Evolution and Human Behavior, 39, 139–145
Lefcourt, H. M. (2001). Humor: The psychology of living buoyantly. Springer Science & Business Media.
Lefcourt, R.M. (2000). Humor: the psychology of living buoyantly. New York: Plenum Publishers
Martin, R. A., Kuiper, N. A., Olinger, L. J., & Dance, K. A. (1993). Humor, coping with stress, self-concept, and psychological well-being.
Martin, R.A., Puhlik-Doris, P., Larsen, G., Gray, J., & Weir, K. (2003). Individual differences in uses of humor and their relation to psychological well-being: Development of the Humor Styles Questionnaire. Journal of research in personality, 37(1), 48–75
Maynard Smith, J., & Harper, D. (2003). Animal Signals. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press
McCullough, M.E., & Reed, L.I. (2016). What the face communicates: Clearning the conceptual ground. Current Opinion in Psychology, 7, 110–114
McGettigan, C., Walsh, E., Jessop, R., Agnew, Z.K., Sauter, D.A., Warren, J.E., & Scott, S.K. (2015). Individual differences in laughter perception reveal roles for mentalizing and sensorimotor systems in the evaluation of emotional authenticity. Cerebral Cortex, 25(1), 546–257
Mehu, M., & Dunbar, R.I. (2008). Naturalistic observations of smiling and laughter in human group interactions. Behavior, 145(12), 1747–1780
Miller, G.F. (2000). The Mating Mind: How sexual choice shaped the evolution of human nature (1st ed.). New York: Doubleday
Morisseau, T., Mermillod, M., Eymod, C., Van Der Henst, J.B., & Noveck, I.A. (2017). You can laugh at everything, but not with everyone: What jokes can tell us about group affiliations. Interaction Studies, 18(1), 116–141
Neuhoff, C.C., & Schaefer, C. (2002). Effects of laughing, smiling, and howling on mood. Psychological Reports, 91, 1079–1080
Overeem, S., Lammers, G.J., & van Dijk, J.G. (1999). Weak with laughter. Lancet, 354, 838
Owren, M.J., & Bachorowski, J.A. (2003). Reconsidering the evolution of nonlinguistic communication: The case of laughter. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 27, 183–200
Pinker, S. (1997). How the mind works. New York: W. W. Norton
Platow, M.J., Haslam, S.A., Both, A., Chew, I., Cuddon, M., Goharpey, N., & Grace, D.M. (2005). “It’s not funny if they’re laughing”: Self-categorization, social influence, and responses to canned laughter. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 41(5), 542–550
Preuschoft, S., & van Hooff, J. A. (1997). The social function of “smile” and “laughter”: Variations across primate species and societies. In Segerstrale, U. C., & Molnar, P. (Eds.), Nonverbal communication: Where nature meets culture (pp. 171–190). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc
Provine, R.R. (1992). Contagious laughter: Laughter is a sufficient stimulus for laughs and smiles. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 30(1), 1–4
Provine, R.R. (2000). Laughter: A Scientific Investigation. New York: Viking
Provine, R.R. (2012). Curious behavior: Yawning, laughing, hiccuping, and beyond. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
Provine, R.R., & Fischer, K.R. (1989). Laughing, smiling, and talking: Relation to sleeping and social context in humans. Ethology, 83, 295–305
Provine, R.R., & Yong, Y.L. (1991). Laughter: A stereotyped vocalization. Ethology, 89, 115–124
Ramachandran, V.S. (1998). The neurology and evolution of humor, laughter, and smiling: the false alarm theory. Medical Hypotheses, 51, 351–354
Raskin, V. (2012). Semantic mechanisms of humor. Boston: D. Riedel
Reed, L.I., & Stratton, R.R. (2018). Face value and cheap talk: How smiles can increase or decrease the credibility of our words. Evolutionary Psychology, 1–9.
Reed, L.I., Matari, Y., Wu, M., & Janaswamy, R. (2019). Emotional tears: An honest signal of trustworthiness increasing prosocial behavior? Evolutionary Psychology, 17(3).
Reed, L.I., Zeglen, K.N., & Schmidt, K.L. (2012). Facial expressions as honest signals of cooperative intent in a one-shot anonymous prisoner’s dilemma game. Evolution and Human Behavior, 33, 200–209
Ritter, M., & Sauter, D.A. (2017). Telling Friend from Foe: Listeners Are Unable to Identify In-Group and Out-Group Members from Heard Laughter. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 1–8
Sauter, D.A. (2013). The role of motivation and cultural dialects in the in-group advantage for emotional vocalizations. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 1–9
Sauter, D., Eisner, F., Ekman, P., & Scott, S.K. (2010). Cross-cultural recognition of basic emotions through nonverbal emotional vocalization. Proceedings fo the National Academy of Sciences, (pp. 2408–2412).
Schmidt, K.L., Ambadar, Z., Cohn, J.F., & Reed, L.I. (2006). Movement differences between deliberate and spontaneous facial expressions: Zogomaticus major action in smiling. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 30, 37–52
Scott-Phillip, T., Blyth, R.A., Gardner, A., & West, S.A. (2012). How do communication systems emerge? Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, (pp. 1943–1949).
Smoski, M.J., & Bachorowski, J.A. (2003). Antiphonal laughter between friends and strangers. Cognition and Emotion, 17, 327–340
Szameitat, D.P., Alter, K., Szameitat, A.J., Darwin, D.J., Wildgruber, D., Deitrich, S., & Sterr, A. (2009). Differentiation of emotions in laughter at the behavioral level. Emotion, 9(3), 397–405
Szameitat, D.P., Kreifelts, B., Alter, K., Szameitat, A.J., Sterr, A., Grodd, W., & Wildgruber, D. (2010). It is not always tickling: distinct cerebral responses during perception of different laughter types. NeuroImage, 53(4), 1264–1271
van Hooff, J.A., & Preuschoft, S. (2003). Laughter and smiling: The intertwining of nature and culture. In de Waal, F.B., & Tyack, P.L. (Eds.), Animal social complexity: intelligence, culture, and individualized societies (pp. 261–287). Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press
Vettin, J., & Todt, D. (2004). Laughter in conversation: Features of occurrence and acoustic structure. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 28(2), 93–115
Wood, A., Martin, J., & Niedenthal, P. (2017). Towards a social functional account of laughter: Acoustic features convey reward, affiliation, and dominance. PLOS ONE, 12(8), 1–19
Zillmann, D. (1983). Disparagement humor. In P.E. McGhee, J.H. Goldstein (Eds.), Handbook of humor research (pp. 85–107). New York, NY: Springer
The authors report no funding.
Conflict of Interest
The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.
All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.
Informed consent was obtained from all individuals participants included in the study.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Rights and permissions
About this article
Cite this article
Reed, L.I., Castro, E. Are You Laughing at Them or with Them? Laughter as a Signal of In-Group Affiliation. J Nonverbal Behav 46, 71–82 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10919-021-00384-0
- Facial expression