Whom do you laugh with more – friends or strangers? People you know well and share a history with or, for example, random commuters with whom all you share is a crowded bus? Unless you are a stand-up comedian, professional clown or suffer from pseudobulbar affect, you have probably answered that you LOL and ROTFL less with strangers. But, do you, really?
In a study by Vettin and Todt (2004), the researchers observed no differences between how much laughter emerged between friends or strangers. On average, they recorded 5.8 instances of laughter for every 10 minutes of conversation (which is, accidently, much more than previous self-reported studies suggested (Martin 2007).
Now, although the study did not investigate whether the observed laughter had any relation building effects on the strangers, the sheer amount of it makes it an interesting component of interaction. “Surely’, I hear you say, ‘one doesn’t need a research paper to know that’. Then you add, however:
And, even if one does crack a laugh with strangers as easily and often as the study by Vettin and Todt leads us to believe, it would be interesting to learn more about why it happen, to what effect and whether one can use it consciously to one’s advantage.
In an experiment by Fraley and Aron (2004), the participants – who were strangers to one another – received two different tasks. The task given to one group was designed to provide the participants with a pleasant and humorous experience (experimental group); the other group received a task that was overall pleasant but not humorous (control group).
Strangers in the experimental group laughed more together – meaning that the manipulation worked – and also reported higher subjective closeness to one another than pairs in the control group following the experiment. It seemed that humor made strangers… less strange to one another.
Study provided some further explanation for this effect by measuring mediating variables, i.e. other effects of humor that could influence the feeling of closeness between the participants:
The most prevalent mechanism discovered by the researchers was related to reduced feeling of discomfort reported by the participants in the humor-condition. Possible explanation here is that humor can help to free the mind (Bateson, 1969) and give a sense of control (Morreall, 1989) in an uncertain situation – which is what meeting strangers often is. Humor can thus reduce the discomfort and tension, and allow us to focus on the interaction and getting to know the other person.
Another study investigated one of the most interesting social effects of humor: the increase in interpersonal attraction following a shared humorous experience.
In this experiment by Cann, Calhoun and Banks (1997), the participants were asked to tell their favorite joke to a stranger. One group of participants had been led to believe that the stranger had many similar opinions and attitudes as themselves; the other group had been led to believe to opposite. Subjectively perceived similarity is a well-studied and important factor determining interpersonal attraction – we tend to like more people who seem similar to ourselves (Lydon, Jamieson, & Zanna 1988; Byrne 1971; etc.).
The strangers, who were actually confederates of the researchers, were instructed to either laugh or react neutrally to the jokes told by the participants. The underlying assumption here was that we perceive people who laugh at our jokes as more attractive – because this indicates a shared sense of humor (Martin 2007), and thus similarity.
The results were quite interesting:
“Although both attitude similarity and response to the joke [positive or neutral] influenced ratings of interpersonal attraction in the expected direction […], a dissimilar stranger [different attitudes] who responded positively to the joke was more attractive than a similar stranger [same attitudes] who responded neutrally.”
(Cann, Calhoun & Banks 1997: abstract)
In other words, the results of the study suggest that we can be attracted more to strangers who, despite being different from us, laugh at our jokes; than to strangers who share our social attitudes and beliefs, but who are not amused by our sense of humor.
Following on from that it is reasonable to think that we use humor – either consciously or not – as a “social-probing device” of sorts. Trying to make others laugh while venturing with humor into different topics, we can learn based on their reactions whether they shares similar knowledge and attitudes, i.e. if they are like us (which is necessary for them to get and enjoy our humor; Zajdman, 1995). This seems to be especially applicable to meeting new people.
(Provided that our jokes are actually funny, that is.)
First, it’s good to have a laugh when you’re meeting new people and want to make friends (no kiddin’, right?) A shared humor experiences reduces tension related to uncertainty we feel when meeting strangers through positive emotions and by providing a much welcome distraction.
Second, it also seems like a good idea to laugh at the jokes that a strangers might tell you (and if you’re desperate to make friends, that means laughing even if they’re not particularly funny). Of course, laughing at others’ jokes is a way of expressing appreciation and feelings of attraction (Grammer 1990). However, it also makes you appear more similar and thus enhances your own attractiveness.
Third, you better be on the watch for all those ingratiation-savvy fellas who will laugh at your jokes no matter how un-whimsical they get – they’re probably desperate to make friends (which is not necessarily a bad thing).
Fourth, responses to attempts at making laugh people whom you just met – if genuine – are important sources of social information about their similarity or dissimilarity to yourself.
At the end of the day, my advice is to go out there and not over-analyze humor having a god ol’ laugh while making friends.
 The fact that we generally under-report how much we participate in humour or laugh, could also be part of the explanation why most of the people would answer that they laugh much more with friends, than strangers.
 Unfortunately, the authors do not report in more details about the tasks they had designed. I, however, cannot think of anything other for the ‘humorous task’ than creating funny memes about psychology; given that the majority of psychological studies use psychology undergraduates as subjects.
Byrne, D. (1971). The Attraction Paradigm. New York: Academic Press.
Cann, A., Calhoun, L. G., & Banks, J. S. (1997). On the role of humor appreciation in interpersonal attraction: It’s no joking matter. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research., 10(1), 77-89.
Fraley, B., & Aron, A. (2004). The effect of a shared humorous experience on closeness in initial encounters. Personal Relationships(11), 61-78.
Grammer, K. (1990). Strangers meet: Laughter and nonverbal signs of interest in opposite-sex encounters. Journal of Nonverbial Behavior, 14(4), 209-236.
Lydon, J., Jamieson, D., & Zanna, M. (1988). Interpersonal similarity and social and intellectual dimensions of first impressions. Social Cognition, 6, 269-286.
Martin, R. A. (2007). The psychology of humor: an integrative approach. Burlington: Elsevier Academic Press.
Vettin, J., & Todt, D. (2004). Laughter in conversation: Features of occurrence and acoustic structure. Journal of Nonverbal Behaviour, 22(2), 93-115.
Zajdman, A. (1995). Humorous face-threatening acts: Humor as strategy. Journal of Pragmatics(23), 325-339.