Why is laughter so contagious

Why is laughter contagious?

Imitating our counterpart helps us to better understand their feelings, attitudes and goals. That works with fun, but also with grief.

If someone giggles, the whole group usually gets hit. Because hardly anything is as contagious as laughter. “Laughter is a signal for others that someone is not threatening but is in a good mood. That's why you feel attracted to happy people, ”says Ilona Papousek, psychologist at the University of Graz. Laughing along with others happens automatically: “If we watch other people laugh, the regions in the brain that are active when we laugh ourselves are activated. That prepares us to laugh along. "

This can also be shown with imaging methods such as electroencephalography (EEG). Even the smallest movements of the facial muscles, which we “copy” from our counterpart, can be detected in this way. It happens at lightning speed: in just 300 to 400 milliseconds, a reaction that is often not even visible to the naked eye can be measured. The opposite usually causes more than a joke: "The laughter of others is the most effective trigger for laughter," says the researcher.

Women are more affected by grief

Getting infected by the emotions of others also helps to better understand their attitudes and goals in everyday life. This is not only the case with happiness, but also with grief - and by the way, women are more easily carried away by this than men, as studies have shown. "There is no measurable difference between the sexes when it comes to how contagious laughter is," says Papousek. Together with her team, she wants to understand why the emotion regulation mechanism works differently in men and women. Beyond that, there are also very big differences in how much people let themselves be carried away by the feelings of others.

In any case, we prefer to be infected by laughter than by the negative: "Laughter creates a positive, rewarding effect in the brain," explains the psychologist. Laughing together among friends is an expression of togetherness, shows that you can count on each other and strengthens the bond. People who are hardly infected by the emotions of others, in turn, have more difficulties in social life.

But laughter can also be threatening to others. Gelotophobia (gelos, Greek for laughter) is the fear of others laughing. Between five and seven percent of Central Europeans suffer from it. “With those affected, the good-natured parts of laughter hardly get through. They only perceive what is hateful and aggressive. ”The brain primarily lets through negative information, people feel laughed at and react irritably.

In fact, laughter is not always a friendly laugh, even in everyday life, but mostly a mixture of funny, good-natured and spiteful, sometimes nasty laughter. In order to study gelotophopia in experiments, however, the researchers need “pure” laughter. How do you get that? By carefully selecting those who will laugh in front of others in the experiments. The scientists do a kind of pre-test in which they examine how their laughter affects others. If it is perceived as harmless and good-natured, the test subject is selected. Of course, she also gets clear instructions on how to laugh.

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("Die Presse", print edition, 02/06/2016)