Today I caught myself doing something that I thought I’d erased. It’s this habit I thought I’d broken which I find totally annoying and that I reckon makes me appear callous and insensitive and bitch-like.
I really don’t think I am any of these things in these situations. But I totally understand how it could be interpreted this way.
Because what happens is, when something happens that catches me off guard my automatic reaction is to laugh.
In the past my loved ones could tell me really, really sad news or something very, very horrific or even just something that I in no way understood and I would laugh. Usually in the form of a throaty guffaw. But sometimes more insensitively, and condescendingly, a short ‘HA!’.
I’ve managed to control the urge (or I’ve just become a nicer person!) quite well over time. But every now and then the automatic chuckle reappears. And it’s embarrassing.
Turns out though I’m probably not the only person who laughs inappropriately when someone chooses to disclose their personal issues with me. And there are a number of psychological theories behind why this occurs.
Interestingly, this same ‘nervous laughter’ has been noted in heaps of psychological experiments when participants have found themselves placed under a high degree of emotional stress, specifically involving perceived harm to others. Probably the most famous of these were those conducted by Stanley Milgram, which I’ve probably banged on about before, who set out to discover why some people blindly follow authority. Milgram brought in test participants and asked them to deliver a series of increasingly powerful electric shocks to an unseen person (the “learner”) to see just how much voltage they would deliver before refusing to continue. An astounding 65% delivered the experiment’s final jolt of 450 volts, fully believing they were actually shocking the “learners”. (Luckily, they weren’t. The “learners” were members of Milgram’s team playing a role.) In the paper published on this experiment, Milgram made mention of numerous participants who laughed nervously once they heard screams of pain coming from the unseen “learners”, from which the study of ‘nervous laughter’ was born.
The relief theory postulates that this laughter serves a homeostatic mechanism by which psychological tension is reduced. Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran postulates that laughter evolved as a signal to both ourselves and others that what might appear as dangerous or threatening actually isn’t. He writes, perhaps “the rhythmic staccato sound of laughter evolved to inform our kin who share our genes: don’t waste your precious resources on this situation; it’s a false alarm”. (I wish I could write sentences like that). If true, this provides a plausible explanation for nervous laughter. We’re signalling to ourselves that whatever horrible thing we’ve just encountered isn’t really as horrible as it appears, something we often desperately want to believe.
If true, this also provides reasonably plausible contradictory evidence to the assumption that my inappropriate laughter is insensitive and callous. Whilst I might appear to be a total bitch, all I’m really trying to do is signal and prepare myself - and my loved ones - that there is anxiety ahead and we need to get our defences ready in order to endure it. (This may be taking the theory a little too far?) Psychologist Alex Lickermen refers to nervous laughter as a ‘mature’ defense mechanism and notes “being able to laugh at a trauma at the moment it occurs, or soon after, signals both to ourselves and others that we believe in our ability to endure it."
Another theory groups nervous laughter in with other seemingly incongruous emotional reactions. Like crying when we’re happy (tick). Or pinching the cheeks of cute babies (affirmative). Or expressing negative reactions to positive news (guilty). An argument here is that these incongruous responses help us regulate our emotions; crying when we’re overwhelmed with joy or laughing when we’re terrified helps us to balance out emotionally. It’s believed that when we’re at risk of being overwhelmed by our emotions – either positive or negative – expressing the opposite emotion can have a dampening effect and restore emotional balance.
So today when I was facilitating a group and half way through a participant chimed in with a comment that was unexpected and confronting and anxiety-provoking, my automatic ‘Ha’ did probably not appear to be the most empathetic of responses. It may be possible I was trying to keep myself and the group hopeful and distance ourselves from the tension and discomfort. Similarly I could have been automatically attempting to alleviate my own level of unexpected anxiety and balance out my own emotions.
Either way, it’s a funny thing this laughter. If only we all knew it was more complex than just a social response to something funny. It's possible I’m admitting fear and a desire to avoid trauma with my obnoxious and inappropriate chuckling.
This was a long way to try and show that I may not be an insensitive bitch after all.