Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Laugh silhouette

Kidding Yourself Is No Laughing Matter

• May 14, 2012 • 1:51 PM

New research finds people who deny their darker impulses laugh less frequently.

There’s one at every comedy club: the guy sitting there stone-faced, while everyone around him is laughing. There are many possible explanations: He was dragged there by his girlfriend, doesn’t like the stand-up’s style, or is simply having a bad day.

But if his humorlessness is chronic, the underlying issue may be more basic: He just isn’t honest with himself. According to newly published research, self-deception inhibits laughter.

“Humor deals with the absurdities of life,” Rutgers University anthropologists Robert Lynch and Robert Trivers write in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. “The less you are in tune with reality, the less likely you are to see the absurdities.”

The researchers describe an experiment featuring 59 undergraduates, who were videotaped as they watched a performance by stand-up comedian Bill Burr. They watched the routine alone so they wouldn’t be influenced by others’ reactions. After the program, the students rated how funny they found it.

For eight minutes of the half-hour program, their facial expressions were closely monitored. Particular attention was given to specific motions that indicate laughter: a tightening of the ring muscles around the eyes, and the raising and tightening of the outer corners of the lips.

Either before or after watching Burr’s comedy act, participants filled out a questionnaire designed to measure self-deception. They responded to potentially uncomfortable statements such as “I could never enjoy being cruel” and “I must admit revenge can be sweet,” expressing their level of agreement on a one-to-seven scale (one denoting “not true at all,” seven signifying “very true”).

Responses at the extremes were scored as one point if admitted something distasteful, the researchers explain. For instance, anyone who responded to the statement, “I can’t think of anyone I hate deeply,” received a point if they emphatically agreed with the statement by responding with a 6 or a 7.

“The more points a participant received, the higher in self-deception he or she was perceived to be,” they write.

The researchers found a link between a lack of laughter and denial of one’s darker impulses. “Participants who scored higher on a self-deception questionnaire laughed less, and reported less enjoyment, in response to a stand-up comedian than those who scored lower,” Lynch and Trivers report.

They cite several possible explanations for this humor impairment. “Because self-deception interfered with one’s ability to accurately perceive reality, it may hinder one’s ability to recognize incongruities, thus reducing laughter,” they write.

“Humor also often involves seeing something from a novel angle, with surprising and pleasing effects. But if you are practicing self-deception and blocking out certain angles, you will, when these angles are exposed, fail to see the absurdity and fail to enjoy the humor.”

So if you want to really get to know someone share something amusing with them, and watch for unforced smiles, chuckles or guffaws. A lack of laughter suggests they may be hiding something—from themselves.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


Follow us


That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.