Making Light of Troubles: Evidence for the Role of Laughter as a Prosocial Pragmatic Device in Conversation
This dissertation describes a series of studies testing the role of laughter in spontaneous conversation. Though laughter has typically been considered a response to humorous stimuli, one proposed function of laughter in naturally occurring talk is as a communicative signal indicating and attending to a potential source of social discomfort. We argue that laughter in conversation is a paralinguistic response to the desire for maintenance and management of social relationships during conversation. Laughter sends a message that some potentially alarming event need not be taken seriously, and invites the sharing of relief and mirth with others. Three studies tested this proposal. In the first, laughter was found to affect tension levels in conversation, and affect them differently depending on the initial tension level and who is laughing. In the second, the nature of the language just preceding laughter was demonstrated to be surprising and to co-occur with perception of fault on someone's part. And in the third, laughter was found to virtually escape notice in conversation as compared with two other non-linguistic noises, a sine tone and a cough sound, even when preceding talk was surprising or indicative of fault, and regardless of who was laughing. These findings are discussed as supportive of a model of laughter as a pragmatic device in conversation used to attend to and affect the health of social relationships.