One of the things I love most is sharing a good belly laugh with my best friend.

You know, the kind where you’re laughing so hard it hurts with happy tears streaming down your face as you try your hardest to catch your breath but you just start laughing all over again.

But have you ever noticed how your genuine “belly laugh” has changed over time or that you don’t laugh the same depending on who you’re with? The truth is, we have many different laughs, and it’s quite simple to tell the difference between them.

The Laughing Difference

The distinguishing differences here are the amount and type of laughter happening. It sounds like a given, but two friends laugh more than two strangers. In fact, laughter is contagious, and you’re more likely to catch laughter from someone if you know them. The type of laughter can also be used to determine the type of relationship the people share. Fascinating, right? We have more:

A new study from PNAS has investigated co-laughter between friends and strangers. They wanted to know: can third-party listeners (966 participants from 24 different countries) determine whether the laughter clips they listened to were from friends or strangers? With an amazing 61% accuracy, yes! Between friends, laughter tends to have a shorter length of time between bursts and is also more irregular in pitch and volume, compared to laughter between strangers.

Why We Laugh

In this hilarious (dare we say, laughable) TED Talk, neuroscientist Sophie Scott breaks down why we actually laugh:

As humans, we have 2 different kinds of laughter: real and polite. Real laughter is the type of laughter we share with friends. It’s helpless and involuntary and is characterized by being longer and higher in pitch combined with rib contractions and whistling sounds.

This is not to say that polite laughter is “fake” by any means, it’s just more social, posed laughter. Polite laughter is used around strangers, and is often an important and necessary social cue. For example, you hear your coworkers laughing together, and you chime in to feel included or someone tells a bad joke at a comedy club, and the audience politely and respectfully laughs back at the comedian.

The majority of people are skilled at telling the difference between the two. Interestingly, both children and chimps laugh differently when being tickled compared to when they play.

Regardless of how you laugh, laughter is a fascinating evolutionary system that has evolved to make and maintain social bonds. It makes us feel better and it makes us feel included. So next time you’re with your friends, stop and listen to the way they laugh. Compare the way you laugh with them to the way you laugh with coworkers or someone you just met in your apartment building–can you tell the difference?

Bonus: The 12 Different Kinds of Awkward Laughs

Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Lead Investigator, Science of People

I'm the author of the national bestselling book Captivate, creator of People School, and human behavioral investigator in our lab.

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