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Joyful laughter or laughing at someone's misfortune? New study explores whether all cultures can detect the emotions behind your chuckle

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Laughter is a universal expression, but to what extent does culture affect the ability to detect the emotions behind a giggle, based on the sound alone – without seeing facial expressions or knowing the context? New research from Brunel University London has explored whether the type of spontaneous laughter produced by German speakers can be recognised by those from different countries, purely based on its sound.

Laughter plays an important role in social interactions and affects the emotional state of the person laughing (the sender) and listening (the receiver). The audible signal can be a response to different emotions such as joy, embarrassment, surprise, amusement or sarcasm. It can be a direct response to a stimulus, such as a joke at a comedy club, as well as a voluntary or involuntary response to a situation or experience.

A new cross-cultural study from Brunel University London has explored whether culture can impact a person’s ability to recognise the type of emotion and laughter expression that they are hearing without having any information about the sender’s facial expressions or context.

In addition, it investigated whether a receiver’s proximity to the sender’s country can have an impact on their ability to recognise the emotion. Can someone from Europe detect the emotion behind a German person’s laughter more easily than someone from Asia?

Dr Diana Szameitat, a neuroscience expert from Brunel University London who co-led led the research, said: “It is suggested that laughter carries distinct emotions, but the general notion that the mere acoustical signal of spontaneous laughter – the sound you hear – can communicate the emotional state of the sender without any contextual information has been questioned.

“A previous study showed that listeners were able to classify natural laughter that was uttered in situations evoking amusement, embarrassment and misfortune, with contextual information but not based on the acoustical signal alone.”

Dr Szameitat highlighted that other previous research has demonstrated that listeners from the same culture as a person laughing are able to recognise emotions, but studies investigating whether the emotional state of the laugher is communicated across cultures are missing.

As part of the new study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, the researchers conducted an online test involving 161 participants who were recruited through social media adverts. The average age of the participants was 30, and the majority were from the UK, Poland, India and Hong Kong.

For each test, the participants listened to a set of 121 audio clips that contained spontaneous laughter generated by German speakers. After listening to the clips, participants had to indicate if they thought the laughter sounded most like joy, schadenfreude - laughter due to another person’s misfortune - or laughter caused by being tickled.

Joyful and schadenfreude laughter was generated by groups of friends watching funny video clips together, and the tickling laughter was produced by the same group of friends tickling each other.

The results of the study showed that joy received the highest recognition rate across all the countries, with the exception of Poland, where schadenfreude laughter scored the highest. The spontaneous laughter caused by tickling had the lowest recognition rate across all four countries, with just 40% of Hong Kong’s participants identifying it correctly. This was the lowest recognition rate across the whole study.

Poland and the UK had the highest overall laughter recognition rate, with 50% correctly identifying the emotions behind the different types of laughter. India had a 48% overall recognition rate, and Hong Kong had the lowest overall recognition rate, with 43% correctly identifying them.

“Participants from the UK and Poland, which are closer to Germany, showed on average 6% higher recognition rates than the participants who were from cultures distant to Germany – India and Hong Kong,” said Dr Szameitat.

While Dr Szameitat believes that the combination of sound, facial expressions and contextual knowledge is most potent for the communication of information, her research suggests that laughter expression is not culture-specific.

“Our key finding is that laughter types can be identified cross-culturally, and the acoustical signal alone is already sufficient to communicate emotional information across a range of cultures,” she said.

Recognition of emotions in German laughter across cultures, by Diana Szameitat and Andre Szameitat, is published in Scientific Reports.

Reported by:

Nadine Palmer, Media Relations
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