Is laughter recognized in the same way across cultures? And, if so, can we tell if people in different cultures are faking their laughter?
This is exactly what a team of researchers attempted to answer in a recent publication in Psychological Science. An astoundingly large group of 31 researchers sought to analyze reactions to laughter in 21 societies across six regions in the world. Because laughter is practiced in some form in all cultures, they wanted to know if the subtle cues that tell whether the laughter is real or fake also hold universally.
Fundamentally, they hoped to explore what such universality means for early evolutionary uses of laughter, which they see as basically signaling affiliation or a desire to cooperate. Listeners should be able to note whether the laughter was really an effort to signal this affiliation, or if it was false. This is the distinction between genuine spontaneous laughter and non-genuine volitional laughter.
This is not to say that volitional laughter must be deceptive. Instead, volitional laughs can be used to convey the recognition of a need for cooperation or other social cues. The study authors suggest that this is actually the more common usage of volitional or non-genuine laughter.
If laughter has this deep evolutionary grounding, then it should not matter what culture somebody is from for them to be able to make the distinction. Past research has found that spontaneous and volitional laughter are substantively different, after all.
To test this hypothesis, the researchers asked people as far flung as Los Angeles, Central Europe, Iran, India, and Japan to participate in the study, totaling up to 884 participants. These participants were then exposed to audio recordings that contained either spontaneous or volitional laughter and were asked to identify each as either fake or genuine.
Overall, people could reliably make the distinction, noting changes in intensity or higher pitch in the laugh. This all suggests that listeners pick up on subtle emotional variation in laughter. While past research has found that people are good at this within their culture, this is certainly a profound extension.
There is a lot to learn from this study in terms of how to better read people and detect deception. Initially, it is pretty amazing that people are able to note whether the laughter is a lie or not. As we have noted, deception detection relies closely on comparing people’s behavior to their baseline. Thus, the familiarity that assists lie detection is completely lost in those audio clips.
That said, it does fit with previous research finding that people can rank spoken voices accurately based on their intuition that the speaker is likely to commit infidelity.
Most importantly, perhaps, is the way this study helps tie laughter into a sense of universal emotional expression. While joy is a universal basic emotion, laughter need not be synonymous with joy. However, this research helps show us that laughter, like gestures of triumph, can be a universal expression.