You’re Probably Not Great at Knowing When Laughter Is Fake

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Even between good friends, it can be hard to figure out the true intent behind a text or email: Is this actual excitement, or is it sarcasm? And what’s that period supposed to mean, anyway? But real-life interactions present their own challenges, too.

Take laughter, something that can be as ambiguous as any online message. It seems pretty straightforward — you laugh when something’s funny — but as Kate Murphy wrote recently in the New York Times, research suggests that as much as 80 percent of all laughter is a conscious choice rather than a genuine, spontaneous reaction. While genuine laughter is emotional, fake laughter serves more of a calculated social function: Laughter can be a weapon or a defense mechanism, a show of dominance or of deference. It can be cruel, sycophantic, nervous, strategically deployed — to name a few.

“It’s a hall of mirrors of inferences and intentions every time you encounter laughter,” neuroscientist Sophie Scott, a professor at University College London, told the Times. “You think it’s so simple. It’s just jokes and ha-ha but laughter is really sophisticated and complicated.” Real and fake laughter may fall under the same umbrella, Murphy wrote, but they manifest differently in the voice and in the brain: 

Genuine laughter, real eruptions of joy, are generated by different neural pathways and musculature than so-called volitional laughter. Contrast the sound of someone’s helpless belly laugh in response to something truly amusing to a more throaty “ah-ha-ha,” that might signify agreement or a nasal “eh-heh-heh” when someone might be feeling uneasy…

There is also a big difference in how you feel after a genuine laugh. It produces a mild euphoria thanks to endorphins released into your system, which research indicates increases our tolerance to pain. Feigned laughter doesn’t have the same feel-good result. In fact, you probably feel sort of drained from having to pretend. Recall your worst blind date.

Still, we’re not that great at puzzling our way through it. As Murphy noted, one 2014 study found that people confuse fake laughter for the real thing about a third of the time (though certain groups are less adept than others: Men tend to be worse at it than women, and powerful people worse than their subordinates). The real litmus test: “You can’t turn genuine laughter on and off like a spigot,” she wrote. While fake laughter is all about staying in control of a situation, the real thing is defined by its uncontrollability.