Rather than simply signaling innocent pleasure, laughter can often be more complicated—conveying everything from anxiety to civility to spite. In fact, laughter can communicate to others sentiments we’d prefer remained secret.
According to new research, the way we laugh is an unexpectedly effective indicator of social power.
“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,” Christopher Oveis, an assistant professor at University of California San Diego, told Quartz.
Oveis is leading research on the relationship between laughter and status; his latest study examines the laughter of 48 male members of a university fraternity. Researchers split participants into groups with two low-status members (pledges, who had joined the fraternity just a month prior) and two high-status members (who had been active in the fraternity for two years or longer). Groups were then recorded as they exchanged jokes and teased each other.
The study found that low-status pledges exhibited markedly different laugher than their brothers higher up in the hierarchy.
“High-status laughers were more disinhibited, willing to take up more space with their voice, versus low status laughers, who were laughing submissively and were more constrained,” Oveis said.
Dominant laughter was louder, more variable in tone, and—to the surprise of researchers—higher in pitch. Low-status laughers, on the other hand, tended to exhibit laugher that was shorter, lower in pitch, less sporadic, and more airy.
“I think this is about the psychology of power, and status tends to co-occur with power,” Oveis said. “We know that when you feel powerful, you feel relaxed, and that tends to co-occur with certain non-verbal behaviors, so you’re more disinhibited over-all.”
High-status laughers tended to consistently laugh dominantly, while low-status laughers did so only occasionally. Notably, low-status individuals sometimes transcended their subordinate role when put in a position of power—for example, when they were teasing another brother.
“It was only when we put low-status laughers into that commanding position that they could feel that power and let those dominant laughs go,” Oveis said.
The researchers also found that laughter immediately signaled the laugher’s status to outside observers. In a second study, researchers played sound clips of the laughs to 51 different undergraduates, who were able to accurately distinguish the laughter as either dominant or submissive.
Oveis points out the study only examined men, whose laughter tends to take the form of snorts and grunts, rather than women, whose laughter is more melodic. Different sexes may reveal different laughing patterns, Oveis said.
The study reaffirms research on “thin slices,” or small bits of non-verbal behavior—such as the way we smile, speak or hold ourselves. We often derive surprisingly accurate conclusions about strangers based on these “thin slices,” Oveis said.
“We give off a lot of information about ourselves in the way we behave, and we’re constantly trying to detect these signals from people even on an unconscious level,” Oveis said. “We’re picking up so much from people every second we observe them.”