April 29, 2013 | 9
Fake laughter is the worst. When you notice it, fake laughter is a reminder that something, socially, is off.
Contrast that with the way you laugh when you are with your dog.* It’s spontaneous, raw and honest. You don’t mean for a laugh to pop out when Sampson is waiting for you to throw a ball and his rear end moves progressively faster and faster. It just happens. Sampson — waiting for a ball — is funny.
Laughing with pets
But which animal makes us laugh most (setting aside the Taylor Swift goat compilation**). Do people living with cats laugh more than people living with dogs, or is it the other way around? And what prompts our laughter? A pilot study, aptly titled Tails of Laughter, investigated those questions, surveying a small sample of people living with cats, dogs, both cats and dogs or no companion animal at all. Participants were told the survey explored how frequently people laughed and what made them laugh. Participants volunteered the information by completing “laughter logs” (yes, that’s what they’re called). While the findings are based on data collected on one working day and from a small number of participants, they offer food for thought into The World of Laughter.
Fine, but what were people laughing about? Maybe people living with dogs were cracking up when thinking about how last year on vacation your sister fell in that giant hole on the beach. Or, maybe people living with dogs and cats spend a lot of time reading The Onion or watching dog and cat videos on YouTube. Nope. People living with dogs or both dogs and cats reported laughing when pets were present more frequently than cat owners.
Previous research into naturally occurring laughter finds that most laughter occurs spontaneously, not from mass media, recalled events or stock jokes. Laughter is most often prompted spontaneously by “something the individual or someone else said or did or something that happened to the individual or someone else.” And it most often occurs in social contexts rather than when alone.
Given the social element of laughter and our propensity to see companion pets as extensions of our social group and families, it is not surprising that we would laugh in their presence. But not all companion pets are necessarily viewed the same. An earlier study found that dog owners perceive their dogs as more “playful, active, affectionate and excitable” than cat owners view their cats. Differences in laughter could derive from actual or perceived differences in dog and cat behavior. Dog behavior, and the social contexts in which it occurs, could provide more opportunities for people to laugh.
I already mentioned a few of the study’s caveats (small sample size, self-reported data), but the most important one could be selection bias. There are notable personality differences between people who describe themselves as dog people, cat people both or neither (click here for an overview of Sam Gosling’s excellent study on these personality differences). It is possible that the current study is more an indication of individuals’ personalities and not necessarily whether dogs or cats are funny. People who live with dogs or dogs and cats might just laugh more, or claim that they laugh more, than people living with cats. Or maybe the people living with cats just had a bad day the day they completed their “laughter logs.”
This study also doesn’t investigate why people are laughing when pets are present. What does your dog or cat do that makes you laugh? Why is it funny?
*Of course, people can fake laugh in the presence of their dog. But it tends to be a nervous laugh appeasing another set of human eyes, with the potential to offer criticism or judgment.
** Some “goats” in the video are actually sheep, via Alan McElligott on Twitter @AMCELL
Images: o back to dogs via Flicker/ faster panda kill kill; Cat on stove, copyright the author.
Serpell J.A. (1996). Evidence for an association between pet behavior and owner attachment levels, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 47 (1-2) 49-60. DOI: 10.1016/0168-1591(95)01010-6
Valeri R.M. (2006). Tails of Laughter: A Pilot Study Examining the Relationship between Companion Animal Guardianship (Pet Ownership) and Laughter, Society & Animals, 14 (3) 275-293. DOI: 10.1163/156853006778149190