Tuesday, 19 July 2011

The first ever experimental investigation of laughing at oneself

To be capable of laughing at oneself is usually considered a mark of good character and the foundation of a robust sense of humour. Yet this is a behaviour that's barely been touched on by psychologists. Opinions have been expressed - for example, La Fave and his colleagues thought that laughing at oneself was never genuine and couldn't be a truly happy event. But for largely practical reasons, experiments on the topic are non-existent. Now Ursula Beermann and Willibald Ruch have shown one way to do it.

Sixty-seven undergrads rated their own ability to laugh at themselves and they nominated one or two peers to provide third-party ratings of the same. Sneakily, whilst the participants filled out these and other questionnaires at a computer, a screen camera took pictures of them. A little later the participants were asked to rate distorted pictures of the faces of unfamiliar men and women. To their surprise, included in the selection were the sneaky photos taken earlier of themselves. These photos of the participants had also been distorted to be, for example, stretched wide as if looking in a spoon (the Mac "Photobooth" software was used to create these effects).

The participants were filmed while they rated the photos so the researchers could later analyse the footage to see whether the participants laughed at the distorted images of themselves. Ekman's Facial Action Coding system, which focuses on the flexing of specific facial muscles, was used to decode the participants' facial expressions, and in particular to look for signs of genuine "Duchenne smiles", which are symmetrical and involve creasing of the muscles around the eyes. Signs of laughter were also noted.

The findings seemed to validate the new methodological approach. Although 80 per cent of participants flashed a genuine smile at least once on seeing their own distorted image, it was those who claimed to be able to laugh at themselves, and whose peers agreed with this verdict, who showed more frequent and intense smiling and laughter in response to the distorted self-images, and fewer signs of fake smiles or negative emotion. On the other hand, there was no correlation between participants' ability to laugh at themselves (based on self- and peer-report) and the amount of laughter triggered by distorted images of other people's faces. This suggests that proclivity for laughing at oneself really is a distinct trait, separate from a general readiness to laugh.

Finally, those participants who laughed more at themselves tended to have more cheerful, less serious dispositions and to be in a better mood on the day of testing.

"...[T]he current study succeeded in providing the first empirical evidence on the phenomenon of laughing at oneself," the researchers said.
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ResearchBlogging.orgBeermann, U., and Ruch, W. (2011). Can people really “laugh at themselves?”—Experimental and correlational evidence. Emotion, 11 (3), 492-501 DOI: 10.1037/a0023444

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

6 comments:

  1. OMG, I LOVE this!

    To tell ya tha truth, this is SERIOUS science, and very useful!!

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  2. I am laughing at this article just thinking about my goofy grin

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  3. This doesn't appear to correctly assess the phenomenon in question. We all know that looking at distorted pictures of ourselves can be amusing, that's why hall of mirrors carnival attractions actually get paying customers, rather what we generally mean when we talk about laughing at ourselves is laughing at our own qualities and personality quirks; being able to find our own peculiar accent or seriousness or fastidiousness or some other part of our behaviour amusing.

    I assumed the researches were going to get friends to rate one another's ability to laugh at themselves and then create a joke about their friend. It's not massively ecologically valid, given that comedy is spontaneous and forced comedy is rarely funny, but it's a better start than looking at distorted self-portraitures.

    Still, it's good to see that someone's attempting to study this phenomenon because pride as a whole is a worthwhile area of research.

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  4. Ben: >>>Still, it's good to see that someone's attempting to study this phenomenon because pride as a whole is a worthwhile area of research.<<<
    That's profound! I wonder if the "7 deadly sins" might not be a better indicator of mental illness than what we currently have. Not because of infallibility, blah, blah, blah, but because of a wisdom of an ancient people handed down to milleniums of progeny.

    It could happen.

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  5. very wel siad,, i am a manager in a Generic Viagra and to keep healthy environment,k, first of all i learned laughing on me over others,,, this really works ,, thanks for sharing,,

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  6. Ben, I thought the same thing when I read the study. From my grad-school work, I learned that laughing at yourself is an adaptive response (positive) when used in reaction to an event that could otherwise evoke ego defense mechanisms. Not sure a distorted picture of myself would alert my ego defenses. Maybe a bad picture of myself (looking really angry or something) might do that...so maybe they should have taken "sneaky" photos of them making faces showing anger or disgust??? I also like your joke idea...

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