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Here’s why we laugh when someone falls, according to science


Who among us has never burst out laughing when we see a friend stumble on the sidewalk, bump their head on their way up, or miss a step on their way up the stairs?

I am the first to declare myself guilty of this reaction! I would also like to apologize (again) to my colleague Janie for the endless giggles I had when she collapsed in slow motion, as if in small jerks that seemed endless, her legs numb, only to see it finally end up on the floor.

Clumsiness, imbalances, falls. It is the basic material of the adventures of Charlie Chaplin, burlesque performances with banana peels and programs of the type funny videos in which we see children falling and people “getting stuck”! Witnessing these scenes, we laugh heartily, often uncontrollably.

Shouldn’t we feel empathy for the other who, after all, finds himself in a situation of vulnerability that can be potentially humiliating? Rest assured, we don’t necessarily laugh out of lack of empathy or sadism.

As a clinical psychologist expert in the field of emotion regulation, I propose to shed light on the ingredients in these situations that have great potential to trigger our often benevolent laughter.

We laugh heartily when we are assured that the person who fell was not injured.

Unpredictability and incongruity

The first of these ingredients is the surprise effect. More specifically, it is to see a person surprised by a daily life situation, when everything was under control for them a few seconds before. The unexpected situation surprises us and creates a gap with the predictable, with what we expected to see.

This incongruous situation highlights our prediction errors: we predicted that the sequence of X would be Y and, finally, the sequence emerges unexpectedly via B. We made a mistake in our prediction of what was going to happen. It’s no longer consistent. Laughing at the situation would be a way of resolving the incongruity by formulating a new more coherent comic interpretation of what we are witnessing.

Facial expression

Faced with this surprising and incongruous situation, our brain goes in search of information that will allow us to interpret what is happening and react accordingly. What does the face of the person who stumbles communicate to us? What we are going to decode there will be determining our reaction.

A study has explored this avenue of research with participants who had to view 210 images representing three types of faces:

  • faces expressing a puzzled look;

  • faces expressing pain or anger; And

  • people with the body placed in unfortunate positions, without the face being visible (eg face hidden by skis; or the head shown in profile with the face hidden by the arm of the person).

A surplus of 20 landscape images had been added across the set of photos, to confuse the participants as to the purpose of the study. Participants were asked to press a button each time a landscape image appeared, and their brain activity was recorded during the task. Participants were also asked to rate how funny they found each image.

At the end of the study, the participants rated the images showing the puzzled faces as being funnier than the images in which the faces expressed pain or anger, and funnier than the images in which we saw bodies in burlesque positions but without seeing the facial expression. The brain data also supported facial expression as an ingredient in our hilarity in these bizarre situations.

Thus, when we perceive perplexity in the expression of the face of the victim of clumsiness (look taken aback, surprised, bewildered), this information sets the stage to trigger our laughter. On the other hand, if we can read suffering or anger in the facial expression, we will then be touched by the distress of the victim of the fall, empathetic to his distress, which will prevent us from laughing. Our neural circuits would therefore have the ability to recognize and appreciate the funny elements of bad luck situations, analyzing the context as non-threatening.

What if it was me…

Witnessing another person’s unfortunate situation prompts us to imagine ourselves in that same situation. “What if it was me…?” »

We identify with what she lives and what she must feel. This exercise in empathy can quickly activate in us issues of unease, powerlessness, humiliation and shame. Laughter then allows us to exteriorize our relief at not being in the place of this unlucky person.

Let us be forgiven for laughing in comic situations of awkwardness of others! We do not laugh at each other’s suffering or distress; we react to the surprise, the incongruity and the bewildered expression of the other, having decoded that he is not in distress or has really hurt himself.

Looking forward to making you laugh after getting my feet entangled in a sidewalk crack!

The author of what'snew2day.com is dedicated to keeping you up-to-date on the latest news and information.

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