Laughter is a universal language

Posted by Emma Woollacott

Laugh, and the world laughs with you: a new study suggests that both laughing and crying are universal across cultures.

A University College London team looked at people in Britain and Namibia to determine whether sounds associated with emotions such as happiness, anger, fear, sadness, disgust and surprise were shared amongst different cultures.

Participants listened to a short story based on a particular emotion -  for example, how a person was very sad because a relative had died.

At the end of the story the participants heard two sounds – such as crying and laughter – and were asked to identify which reflected the emotion expressed in the story. The British group heard sounds from the Himba and vice versa.

"People from both groups seemed to find the basic emotions – anger, fear, disgust, amusement, sadness and surprise – the most easily recognisable," said Professor Sophie Scott. "This suggests that these emotions – and their vocalisations – are similar across all human cultures."

Laughter was particularly well recognised by both groups.

"Tickling makes everyone laugh – and not just humans," says Dr Lisa Sauter. "We see this happen in other primates such as chimpanzees, as well as other mammals. This suggests that laughter has deep evolutionary roots, possibly originating as part of playful communication between young infants and mothers.

Meanwhile, however, another new study has indicated that facial expressions aren't so easily gauged across cultures. A study at the Université de Montréal has concluded that Asians and Caucasians view faces differently.

"Asians had particular problems with negative emotions. They confused fear and surprise as well as disgust and anger," says Caroline Blais of the Department of Psychology. "This is because they avoided looking at the mouth, which provides a lot of information about these emotions."