Laughter signals social status

Perhaps the most memorable scene in the movie Goodfellas (1990) was not originally in the script but came out of actor Joe Pesci’s own experience as a young waiter who made the mistake of calling a mobster he served a wiseguy. “Funny how?” asks Pesci, as the mobster Tommy DeVito in the film, when Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) makes the same mistake of calling him “funny.” In the tense exchange that follows, which director Martin Scorsese allowed Pesci and Liotta to improvise before their genuinely surprised fellow mobsters, the result is not only one of Hollywood’s finest mob moments but a lesson in the role of laughter within social hierarchies.

In fact, according to a new study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, which confirms the deep human intuition of Pesci’s scene, laughter signals social status.

Human laughter is omnipresent — occurring in 95 percent of conversations by one estimate — and, as demonstrated in Goodfellas, we laugh for a number of reasons: because we are amused, to signal agreement or defuse tension, or just because others are laughing. Believed to have evolved from the “play face,” a relaxed, open-mouth display visible in chimpanzees, laughter signals that a behavior is safe, even playful. “By using laughter alongside aggressive statements,” says the study’s lead author, Christopher Oveis, a professor of economics and strategic management at the University of California, San Diego, “laughter can render an aggressive behavior less serious and more socially appropriate.”

Several studies have suggested that laughter plays a key role in social bonding and getting others to like us, and when you are lower in the status hierarchy, you are especially likely to laugh, often unconsciously, at just about anything remotely funny your boss, professor or higher-ranking mobster has to say. But it’s not just low-status individuals using “submissive” laughter to ingratiate themselves to their superiors. More dominant individuals like Tommy DeVito also use laughter as a means of expressing that dominance and negotiating rank in a way that, according to the new findings, can signal status to your peers sitting around at the bar.

As their test subjects, Oveis and his colleagues chose not a group of mobsters but 48 fraternity brothers at a public American university, whom they divided into low-status “pledges” and high-status members, and then recorded them doing what fraternity brothers do best (besides drinking) — exchanging jokes and teasing each other. They found that high-status brothers were more likely to engage in “dominant” laughter that was louder, less inhibited and — somewhat surprisingly (unless you’re Joe Pesci) — higher in pitch than the shorter, more inhibited and lower-pitched laughter exhibited by the low-status pledges.

Even more interestingly, when the researchers played audio clips of the frat-boy laughter to other undergraduate students, the participants were able to distinguish dominant and submissive laughter, not to mention accurately identify the higher- and lower-status brothers by their laughter.

But do such dynamics hold true outside the frat house? It’s a defensible sample, says Tyler Stillman, a management professor at Southern Utah University who has studied laughter extensively, but one that still differs from the general population, among other things, because “fraternities can have clearly defined hierarchies — something one might find at work but not among friends.” The study also looked exclusively at men, something Oveis tells OZY they are in the process of remedying with ongoing research into women’s laughter. They also plan to investigate how laughter works in other types of relationships, including between co-workers or romantic partners.

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