New in PLOS ONE: Acoustic analysis of social functional laughter

The first empirical paper extending our social functional account of smiles to laughter is now available in the journal PLOS ONE (to read it, click here). This study combines acoustic analysis (including pitch, spectral, and formant variables) of 400 laugh samples with perceiver ratings of how much each laugh signals reward, affiliation, and dominance. We draw inspiration from previous research in laughter and animal vocal behavior to explain the rich diversity of sounds people produce while laughing. We also uncovered some unexpected sex effects that warrant further investigation. The abstract is below:

Recent work has identified the physical features of smiles that accomplish three tasks fundamental to human social living: rewarding behavior, establishing and managing affiliative bonds, and negotiating social status. The current work extends the social functional account to laughter. Participants (N = 762) rated the degree to which reward, affiliation, or dominance (between-subjects) was conveyed by 400 laughter samples acquired from a commercial sound effects website. Inclusion of a fourth rating dimension, spontaneity, allowed us to situate the current approach in the context of existing laughter research, which emphasizes the distinction between spontaneous and volitional laughter. We used 11 acoustic properties extracted from the laugh samples to predict participants’ ratings. Actor sex moderated, and sometimes even reversed, the relation between acoustics and participants’ judgments. Spontaneous laughter appears to serve the reward function in the current framework, as similar acoustic properties guided perceiver judgments of spontaneity and reward: reduced voicing and increased pitch, increased duration for female actors, and increased pitch slope, center of gravity, first formant, and noisiness for male actors. Affiliation ratings diverged from reward in their sex-dependent relationship to intensity and, for females, reduced pitch range and raised second formant. Dominance displayed the most distinct pattern of acoustic predictors, including increased pitch range, reduced second formant in females, and decreased pitch variability in males. We relate the current findings to existing findings on laughter and human and non-human vocalizations, concluding laughter can signal much more that felt or faked amusement.

Adrienne Wood