Revealed - Why Babies Laugh Even When They Don’t Understand Jokes

The answer to this question points out to a serious scientific reason. Charles Darwin studied laughter in his own infant son and Freud formed a theory that our tendency to laugh originates in a sense of superiority. So we take pleasure at seeing another’s suffering.

The answer to this question points out to a serious scientific reason. Charles Darwin studied laughter in his own infant son and Freud formed a theory that our tendency to laugh originates in a sense of superiority. So we take pleasure at seeing another’s suffering.


The great psychologist of human development, Jean Piaget, thought that babies’ laughter could be used to see into their minds. If you laugh, you must ‘get the joke’ to some degree – a good joke is balanced in between being completely unexpected and confusing and being predictable and boring.

Studying when babies laugh might therefore be a great way of gaining insight into how they understand the world, he reasoned. But although he proposed this in the 1940s, this idea remains to be properly tested.
Revealed - Why Babies Laugh Even When They Don’t Understand Jokes
Despite the fact that some very famous investigators have studied the topic, it has been neglected by modern psychology.

Addyman, of Birkbeck, University of London, is out to change that. He believes we can use laughter to get at exactly how infants understand the world.

He’s completed the world’s largest and most comprehensive survey of what makes babies laugh, presenting his initial results at the International Conference on Infant Studies, Berlin, last year. Via his website he surveyed more than 1000 parents from around the world, asking them questions about when, where and why their babies laugh.

The results are – like the research topic – heart-warming. A baby’s first smile comes at about six weeks, their first laugh at about three and a half months (although some took three times as long to laugh, so don’t worry if your baby hasn’t cracked its first cackle just yet).

Tickling is the single most reported reason that babies laugh. If you tickle a baby they apparently laugh because you are tickling them, not just because they are being tickled. What’s more, babies don’t tend to laugh at people falling over.

They are far more likely to laugh when they fall over, rather than someone else, or when other people are happy, rather than when they are sad or unpleasantly surprised. From these results, Freud’s theory (which, in any case, was developed based on clinical interviews with adults, rather than any rigorous formal study of actual children) – looks dead wrong.

Although parents report that boy babies laugh slightly more than girl babies, both genders find mummy and daddy equally funny.

Addyman continues to collect data, and hopes that as the results become clearer he’ll be able to use his analysis to show how laughter tracks babies’ developing understanding of the world – how surprise gives way to anticipation, for example, as their ability to remember objects comes online. BBC

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