Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Science & Tech
12 August 2014

Study finds brain confusion causes us to laugh at the misfortune of others

When it comes to laughing at someone spilling a tray of drinks or falling down a well, research suggests a person's facial expression determines whether we find it funny or not.

By Fiona Rutherford

A woman goes into a cafe with a duck. She puts the duck on a stool and sits next to it. The waiter comes over and says: “Hey! That’s the ugliest pig that I have ever seen.” The woman says: “It’s a duck, not a pig.” And the Waiter says: “I was talking to the duck.”

That’s a joke from psychologist Richard Wiseman’s Laugh Lab, demonstrating the Superiority Theory of Humour. It proposes that we laugh at people to assert our superiority over them – in other words, when a person is made to look silly it makes us feel better about ourselves. It’s a theory that traces back to philosophers like Plato, Aristotle and Hobbes, who were just a few of the great thinkers who have have attempted to understand and explain why people laugh at the misfortunes of others. Now, a recent study published in Neuropsychologia has looked further into the biology behind humour, and specifically why other people falling over is so funny.

The research team, led by psychologist Mirella Manfredi from the University of Milano-Bicocca, asked participants to rate the hilarity of several photographs depicting people in misfortunate situations, while their brain activity was measured using electroencephalography (EEG). EEG is a neuroimaging tool commonly used by scientists in order to evaluate Event Related Potentials (ERP) – that is, a measure of the brain’s activity directly reflecting a specific sensory, cognitive or motor event.

The photographs were grouped into three categories: an “Affective” group, in which the victim showed a pained or angry facial expression; a “Comic” group, in which the victim’s facial expression appeared bewildered or disorientated; and a “No Face” group, where the victim’s facial expression was not visible. The aim was to pinpoint the specific changes in brain activity that happen when we see someone’s face, and compare it to how funny their unfortunate mishap seemed. The researchers suspected that the difference between slapstick and tragedy came down mostly to facial expressions – the same misfortune would be funny or upsetting depending mostly or entirely on how the person experiencing it seemed to be reacting.

They compared and analysed the participants’ brain activity for each category of photograph, comparing it to ERPs which are associated with specific mental activities. For example, the first ERP that they looked for is known as N170, and is associated with the recognition and memory of faces and facial expressions. Current literature suggests that N170 is active even when there isn’t a face present – it explains why humans tend to spot things that look like faces quite easily in inanimate objects, as with the famous “Face on Mars“. Previous studies have also shown that N170 is most susceptible to fearful or frightening faces, as opposed to neutral faces.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

On the whole, this new study found N170 responded more to Comic facial expressions than the other two groups. The researchers believe this is because when the brain sees a face with a comical expression for the first time, it mistakenly interprets its comic traits (like eye-widening, for example) as fearful or life-threatening. That is, the (unintentionally) hilarious face someone might pull when they’re falling over will grab the attention of the part of our brain constantly searching for scary faces, making it even more striking.

The researchers also observed the anterior N220 (N2) ERP, which is believed to be connected to stimuli containing conflicting features. Previous studies have shown an association between it and the Stroop paradigm – a phenomenon where the brain’s reaction time slows down when dealing with contradictory information. However, the results in this study showed that the large N2 response followed the N170, providing evidence for the “disambiguating processing” that the researchers spotted earlier. They write:

“We suppose that during the perception of the Comic stimuli, the processing of the non-life-threatening context and the like-fearful expression of the victims  could cause a contrasting effect. This effect could draw a form of a paradoxical effect triggering the amused reaction in the observers.”

In other words, the researchers have found that the brain interprets funny and frightening facial expressions similarly, but it also recognises the stuff that’s happening around the facial expression and tries to reconcile the contradiction. This contradiction, or paradox, triggers a humourous response: we laugh, recognising that someone isn’t in danger but is instead just clumsy.

A key finding that reinforced this interpretation was how another ERP, N400, responded to the No Face stimuli. N400 is thought to reflect contextual comprehension – for example, understanding sign language as different from other kinds of physical movement – and its large response was key, as it indicated the participants’ effort to comprehend the nature of the situation without using facial expressions as a marker. It appears to suggest that the facial expression of the person we’re laughing at is crucial in terms of humour processing, since it supplies the necessary information needed to determine how likely we are to laugh at their misfortunate.

“In conclusion,” they write, “the present ERP study suggests the existence of a neural circuit that is capable of recognise [sic] and appreciate [sic] the comic element of a misfortune situation in a group of healthy adults.” The next time you find yourself laughing at someone as they walk into a lamppost, it’s OK – your brain has decided that it’s going to laugh at them whether you like it or not.