Gigglers are optimists who like to see pompous arses deflated. The guffaw suggests you’re uninhibited and willing to take chances.
The snort – the bottled-up laugh that comes out of your nose – says you’re shy and inhibited and don’t want to` hurt people’s feelings.
These were some of the claims made by the late New York psychologist and author Elayne Kahn – one of many who for years championed the idea that your laugh reveals your personality type.
Until recently, it seemed to be crowd-pleasing guess work with not much science behind it.
Science is catching up however and finding laughter is more complicated and even more sinister than these sweeping catch-all analyses.
The short version is that we have two kinds of laughter: there’s the reflexive laugh that bubbles up uncontrollably because of a funny or uncomfortable situation; and there’s the fake laugh we use to manipulate, curry favour, threaten, dominate and camouflage our intentions. The degree that we do any and all of these things reveals us as largely survivors, strivers or outright predators.
A recent study by the University of California found that laughter is a reliable indicator of status and power within a social group – and that strangers can determine who are the top dogs and who are the cowering puppies from a short sample of hilarity.
“Just by listening to a single instant of someone’s laughter, a one-second sample of the way someone laughs, you can gain some insight as to their status in a group,” according to interviews with lead researcher Professor Christopher Oveis, who teaches leadership courses at the Rady School of Management, and serves as a consulting editor for Emotion and for the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
The study examined the laughter style of members of a university fraternity, clubs that tend to treat new members like peasants. The sample group contained an equal mix of “pledges” who’d been members for less than a month; and senior members of at least two years’ standing. The group was recorded telling jokes and teasing one another.
“High-status laughers were more disinhibited,” said Professor Oveis, “willing to take up more space with their voice, versus low-status laughers, who were laughing submissively and were more constrained.”
The laughs were then broken down into short samples and played to 51 different undergraduates, who were able to accurately distinguish the laughter as either dominant or submissive.
It’s a not a new idea. Aristotle argued that laughter made us feel superior: he based this idea on the employment of dwarves and hunchbacks for comic relief.
Over the last 60 years, laughter research has mushroomed – and there are several international journals that publish nothing hut humour studies.
The meaning and function of laughter has been teased out in so many ways it’s mind-boggling. Online there are hundreds of papers with titles like A Note on the Neuro-Mathematics of Laughter and Mirthful Laughter and Blood Pressure and Laughter and Electroencephalographic Activity.
For some, the holy grail is not just proving laughter shows what type of person you are, but who you are as an individual.
“Laughter and speech differentiate human beings from the animal kingdom,’’ wrote Dr Jean Askenasy, an Israeli neurologist, in a 1987 paper titled The Functions and Dysfunctions of Laughter. Not all Smiles are Created Equal.
Askenasy claimed that “each individual has a very characteristic and stable laughing style”.
Could our laugh be as unique as our fingerprints? The proof will come, one way or the other, as voice recognition technology becomes more sophisticated. A little chuckle might be enough to trip the security door at work. Its’s a cute idea.
Less amusing is the idea that human resource departments will use current laughter research to determine whether you’re telling the truth, your motivations and how well you fit in. So no making with the jokes at that job interview.