Laughter fills our world. We laugh when we’re happy, when we’re nervous, or when we hear a really funny (or really bad) joke. Beyond these emotional reactions, laughter can also play a key role in group dynamics and communication, even during events as sobering as a murder trial.
Joann Keyton and Stephenson Beck recently studied the full transcript of jury deliberations in a 2004 Ohio murder trial, and Science Daily shared the results.
“We’re interested in how people communicate within a group in order to accomplish a task, and we saw this as an opportunity to explore the role of laughter in how people signal support — or lack of support — for other people’s positions within a group.” Keyton notes that there is very little research on the role of laughter in communication, particularly when divorced from humor.
They learned that laughter is often used as an intentional, strategic tool to control communication and group dynamics.
For example, one juror was very vocal and made it clear early in the case that she was opposed to the death penalty. In one instance, when that juror agreed with other jury members, one of the other members said “She’s so smart,” resulting in laughter from other members of the group. “That had the effect of further distancing her from the rest of the jury,” Keyton says.
The jurors also used laughter as a way to reduce tension.
…at one point the jury was unclear on whether a sentence related to one of the charges was for 30 days or 30 years. This confusion led to widespread laughter. “The laughter allowed the jurors to release some tension, while also allowing them to acknowledge they had made an error – so they could move forward with that error corrected,” Keyton says.
“Laughter is one way of dealing with ambiguity and tension in situations where a group is attempting to make consequential decisions and informal power dynamics are in play….There are very few opportunities to see group decision making, with major consequences, in a public setting,” Keyton explains. “It is usually done in private, such as in corporate board meetings or judicial proceedings. But laughter is something that occurs frequently, and not only because something is funny. Nobody in the jury was laughing at jokes.”