May 21, 2012 at 9:10 AM ET
As a some-time stand-up comic, Robert Lynch wondered why some people in the audience howled with laugher, while others sat stony-faced. Research and anecdotal evidence have found that people look for friends and mates with senses of humor, but he couldn’t grasp why some people got it and others seemed puzzled.
“It had to be something pretty fundamental about humor,” says Lynch, a doctoral student in evolutionary anthropology at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.
At the time, his advisor and co-author, Robert Trivers, was writing a book about self-deception, so Lynch decided to look at how self-deception -- basically, lying to yourself -- influenced sense of humor. He found that the more someone practiced self-deception, the less likely they were to genuinely laugh.
Lynch asked 59 college students (33 female, 26 male) to watch a 28-minute video of comedian Bill Burr’s stand-up. (This is a departure; most humor research uses jokes from joke books, which, let’s face it, only people without senses of humor and your weird uncle find funny.) Each subject watched the show alone while the researchers videotaped the reactions. Participants also filled out a survey to reveal whether they practiced self-deception and then answered some additional questions about mood, extraversion, and whether they enjoyed the comedian.
“Humor is intrinsically difficult to study. Robert's genius was to measure it precisely via FACS, a facial identification system that can isolate different kinds and intensities of laughter,” says Trivers, professor of anthropology and biological sciences at Rutgers University.
Lynch examined the videos and coded each person’s reaction using FACS, or facial action coding system, which links slight facial changes to emotions. He recorded the actions per frame, noting the duration and intensity of each. Specifically, he looked at the lips to see if students smiled with a Duchenne smile, which is an involuntary and genuine grin. Also, he watched the eyes. People can fake a guffaw or a smile, but FACS ensures he could tell if students genuinely smiled or forced it.
“Real smiles come from the eyes,” Lynch says, noting it’s impossible to fake an authentic laugh.
Self-deceivers were less likely to laugh at the stand-up comic than those who were more honest. Lynch suspects that it’s because comedians often joke about taboo topics, and those who are lying to themselves can’t chuckle because they feel it would be too revealing.
“[Laughter] is an honest, involuntary emotional signal and it is signaling enjoyment. People who are self-deceptive could be more concerned with honest signaling. It’s a little bit dangerous for them to be laughing because they don’t get it themselves and there are concealing the truth to themselves and they are concealing it to others,” Lynch says.
The paper, “Self-deception inhibits laughter,” is available online at the journal Personality and Individual Differences.