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4 May 2000
Laughter Important Ingredient In Relationships
by George Atkinson

If you are trying to favorably impress a member of the opposite sex, how you laugh could play an important role in whether you are successful, according to a Vanderbilt University researcher.

Researchers recorded the laugh sounds of about 120 undergraduate students in particular kinds of social pairings while they watched humorous scenes from movies like "When Harry Met Sally" and "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."

Jo-Anne Bachorowski, an assistant professor of psychology, along with Vanderbilt graduate student Moria Smoski and Cornell professor Michael J. Owren, discovered that people produce a wide variety of laugh sounds and that many of these sounds show a remarkable range of vocal pitch.

Of particular interest was their finding that individuals vary both the number and kinds of laughs they produce depending on the sex of their social partner and whether their social partner is a friend or stranger.

"We think that laughter is one of a package of subtle yet effective tools, like physical proximity and eye gaze, that people use-albeit unconsciously-to shape the emotional and behavioral responses of others," Bachorowski said.

For example, these researchers found that individual women produced laughs with markedly high and variable pitch when in the company of a male stranger. Linking these outcomes to Owren's work with nonhuman primates, as well as to basic evolutionary pressures thought to influence inter-individual relationships, Bachorowski said "using this laugh-production strategy may be in the female's best interest.

"Male strangers are potentially dangerous to females because of their somewhat greater physical size and ardent pursuit of sexual opportunities," she said. "Men are also biased to interpret the friendly behavior of females as potentially being sexually tinged." A woman, however, can control the emotional stance of a male towards her by using laughter to shape his arousal and emotion-related responses systems. High-pitched sounds such as the laughs produced by the women in the study are inherently arousing or activating. As a male in the company of a female is likely to interpret his activated state as being positive, the female can therefore shape the male to respond favorably towards her by producing these acoustically extreme laughs.

Circumstances are very different for a man with a female stranger. In these circumstances, women are biased to be somewhat cautious. "If a male wants to impress a female, he shouldn't make sounds that would increase her level of arousal or activation. In the presence of a male stranger, the female may interpret her arousal as being negative, potentially making her feel wary and uncomfortable around this man. Instead, it may be more effective for a male to initially produce somewhat innocuous laughs at a fairly low rate, and to expand his laugh repertoire only in the course of a developing relationship." In support of these ideas, Bachorowski and her colleagues found that men in these circumstances produced very few laughs. Of these, virtually none were the arousal-inducing, high-pitched sort.

Other findings from Bachorowski's research include:

-- Mens' laughter is linked to their relationship history with their social partner. When watching the movie scenes, men paired with friend of either sex laughed significantly more than did men tested alone or when paired with a male or female stranger.

-- Female laughter is linked with the sex of their social partner. Females paired with a male friend produced more laughs than females tested alone, with a female friend or with a male stranger. Also of interest was finding that many of the laughs produced by females tested with a male stranger were acoustically indicative of overall smaller body size-perhaps exploiting the male propensity to be attracted to females with more youthful, juvenile features.

-- People have an acoustically rich repertoire of sounds--with some laughs actually sounding more like bird chirps, pig snorts, frog croaks, or chimpanzee pants than human laugh sounds.

-- Humans produce a wide variety of laugh sounds with a remarkable range of pitch that, for males, can reach the highest pitch of a trained soprano. In females, pitches can be as high as twice those of a trained soprano.

-- Laughs can be separated into three basic categories: 1. Song-like laughs, which are akin to our stereotyped notions of laughter and are sometimes characterized by remarkably high pitch; 2. Snort-like laughs, with sounds that exit primarily through the nose; and 3. Grunt-like laughs produced through the mouth, but with no measurable vocal pitch.

"Among primates, humans are unique in the extent to which they rely on cooperative relationships with unrelated kin," Bachorowski said. "Being able to produce a signal such as laughter, which makes others feel good, may make it more likely that they'll be disposed to behave positively towards us, both now and in the future."

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