Research Shows Laughter Is Important for Social Dynamics

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How many times have you heard that’s nothing to laugh about? Well a new study from the North Carolina State University is finding laughter is important for social dynamics. The finding comes from new research that examined the role of laughter in jury deliberations during a capital murder case.

Researchers were given access to the full transcript of jury deliberations in the 2004 Ohio trial of a man charged with two murders along with other counts. Dr. Joann Keyton, a professor of communication at NC State and co-author of the study said, “This was a rare opportunity to gain insight into the jury’s deliberative process. As far as we know, this is the only jury transcript available for study from a death penalty case.”

One thing that struck Keyton and her co-author Dr. Stephenson Beck of North Dakota State University, was the amount of laughter they saw in the transcript. “This was intriguing,” Keyton says. “We’re interested in how people communicate within a group in order to accomplish a task, and we saw this as an opportunity to explore the role of laughter in how people signal support or lack of support for other people’s positions within a group.”

Laughter-communication research is scarce

She says that to date, there is very little research on the role of laughter in communication. The researchers found that laughter could be used as an instrument to intentionally and deliberately control communication and affect group dynamics.

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The researchers found that “laughter matters, even when it is a serious group task,” Keyton says. “Laughter is natural, but we try to suppress it in formal settings. So, when it happens, it’s worth closer examination.”

For example, at one point the jury was unclear on whether a sentence related to one of the charges was for 30 days or 30 years. This confusion led to a laughter outbreak. “The laughter allowed the jurors to release some tension, while also allowing them to acknowledge they had made an error – so they could move forward with that error corrected,” Keyton says.

“Laughter is one way of dealing with ambiguity and tension in situations where a group is attempting to make consequential decisions and informal power dynamics are in play,” Keyton says.

“There are very few opportunities to see group decision making, with major consequences, in a public setting,” Keyton explains.

“It is usually done in private, such as in corporate board meetings or judicial proceedings. But laughter is something that occurs frequently, and not only because something is funny. Nobody in the jury was laughing at jokes.”

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