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Evan Hawes

Spring 2014
PSYC 1101 Welsh
“Why We Laugh”, Alex Lickerman, Psychology Today
1 credit
Human beings laugh for many different reasons, and it is interesting to look into exactly
what causes each different type of laughter. From hysterical laughter in response to a joke, to
nervous laughter in a stressful situation, the mystery behind this expression is fascinating. This
paper primarily focuses on the concept of nervous laughter. This expression is fascinating in its
inherent irony; in a situation that is otherwise completely unfunny and in some cases dark and
depressing, we sometimes find ourselves letting out a small burst of laughter.
One of the first studies referenced in the article is not directed at the laughter specifically,
but towards the human reaction to being given power over another person. In this study, they
found that people actually ended up sometimes nervously laughing as they heard the unseen
subject being shocked by a device that they were controlling. In this situation, there is obviously
nothing really funny going on. This is a very strange reaction, so we must look into the
evolutionary cause of laughter to begin with to try to understand the cause of laughter in
otherwise morbid situations.
Lickerman goes on to explore the concept of another study within “A Brief Tour of
Human Consciousness” that conceives the beginnings of laughter as being a sort of communal
vocal mechanism (for ourselves and others) to cue the lack of danger in a situation previously
perceived to be dangerous. This thought process concludes that laughter such as this was
essentially a “false-alarm” warning to ease an otherwise stressful encounter of some sort. Along
this train of thought, nervous laughter could be perceived as a way of telling ourselves that a
situation is not quite as bad as we think.
Lickerman examines the concept of this laughter as a defense mechanism against
overwhelming anxiety. By letting ourselves laugh at a situation, we are in a sense dismissing its
importance or stressfulness. For example, when someone initially loses a limb, it is obviously a
very stressful situation. They see it as being a purely horrible thing that has destroyed many
aspects of their life. However, in time, many find a way to surround this sort of situation with
humor and laugh at it. By laughing at it, they are inherently drawing stress away from the
He goes on to make the statement that laughter could be used as a weapon against
suffering and despair. This is an interesting concept, and serves to make sense of humor within
human socialization quite a bit. Humor finds a way to heal mental wounds of a situation and
prepare us for moving on from it. Two primary points Lickerman makes are: 1) Humor
diminishes or even eliminates the moment-by-moment suffering we might otherwise experience
as a result of a traumatic which 2) actually makes it more likely we will make it through a trauma
unmarred and flourish once again. Essentially, humor and laughter prove to be inspirational to
the human psyche.
In conclusion, it would seem that laughter is actually quite useful to the well-being of the
human mind. It would seem that the light-hearted effects of humor and laughter allow us to move
past situations that have harmed us somehow in the past. By using this laughter to fight against
the anxiety of trauma, we allow ourselves to heal and prepare for adversity once more.