Good news for joke-tellers everywhere: Laughter can make a bad joke seem funnier, a study finds. People found jokes paired with laughter funnier than jokes without, and the more natural sounding the laughter was, the better. This effect was the same for people who have autism as it was for those who don't, which suggests that autistic people may not interpret all social cues as differently as expected.
"There's quite a lot of research arguing that people with autism process social information differently, and there is a little bit of evidence that they process laughter differently," said Sophie Scott, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London who was a co-author on the study published in Current Biology. This research suggests that the way people with autism interpret laughter may not be so different after all.
People with autism tend to have trouble with social interactions, which could stem from how they process social cues like laughter.
In order to study how individuals with autism and those without process laughter, a research team led by University College London Ph.D. student Qing Ceci Cai leveraged the power of the pun.
Ready, set, laugh
Cai scoured the internet for simple jokes involving puns and wordplay. "What's round and sounds like a trumpet? A crumpet!" was a favorite of both Cai and the study participants.
The jokes might not be intrinsically hilarious, but that was intentional, Cai said. By using "bad" jokes, the researchers could be sure that there was plenty of room for listeners' opinions of them to improve.
The study participants, which included people who have autism as well as people who don't, listened to the jokes as told by a professional comedian and rated how funny each joke was on a scale from one to seven. Some jokes were followed by a recording of laughter, while others were not.
The researchers found that when jokes were paired with laughter, they were rated 15% funnier on average than when they weren't.
In addition to learning how the presence of laughter affected how funny the jokes seemed, the researchers also wanted to know whether natural-sounding chuckles would affect the result more than forced laughter. They asked a separate group of volunteers, including coauthor Scott, to laugh on cue — generating "canned" laughter — and then recorded them laughing spontaneously at funny videos.
"That was quite good fun," Scott recalled. "Basically we just did whatever it took to make each other laugh short of tickling each other."
While any kind of laughter made the jokes seem funnier, spontaneous laughter had a stronger effect than canned laughter, increasing the perceived funniness of the jokes by nearly 8% on average.
"When people started broadcasting comedy on the radio, they used audience laughter to signify that it was a comedy," Scott said. "What our study shows is that it might not just help the listeners know what's going on, it may actually help them to find it funnier."
Not so different after all
Although the autistic listeners found the jokes funnier overall, switching from forced to natural laughter increased both groups' enjoyment of the jokes by the same amount. The researchers believe this shows that people with autism process laughter in the same way as people without autism.
Robert Provine, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who wasn't involved in the research, described the study as a "unique contribution" to the field.
"Increasing humor in our lives has the potential to benefit us both mentally and physically," Shelia Kennison, an Oklahoma State University psychology professor, wrote in an email. She also was not involved in the research. "These results suggest that individuals with autism stand to benefit from these positive benefits of humor, too."
Cai hopes that her research will "bring mutual understanding between neurotypical [people without autism] and autistic people." She said that the feedback has been valuable and encouraging, with some people commenting that studies like this helped them appreciate their autistic siblings' and kids' "unique expressiveness."
The researchers plan to perform a similar study while scanning participants' brains to learn more about how they process laughter.
"There have been studies of laughter in the brain scanner and there have been studies of humor, but there haven't been studies of the two together," Scott said. She anticipates that this stage of the research may be more difficult. "It's possible that people just won't find anything funny as they're having their brains scanned."