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“I can’t go in there, I’m going to start laughing as soon as I see it,” my best friend says an hour before the start of her father’s wake. We’re 16 and this really shouldn’t be happening. “Why do you think you’re going to laugh?” I ask, in a somewhat confused way. She tells me that she doesn’t know how else to respond, and I finally get it. She laughed when we finally went inside and, to be honest, I did too (we both blame the make up the funeral home put on him – far too much blush for a man of his age). 

See, we’ve all had those moments where we’ve burst out into an uncontrollable chortle, chuckle, giggle, snigger, or even guffaw, at the most inappropriate time. For me, it’s often when I see someone hurt themselves. It’s not that I’m laughing at their pain – rather, I’m feeling anxious that they’re seriously hurt and I don’t know what else to do. The laugh is entirely involuntary, and completely uncontrollable. 

But why do we laugh when we really shouldn’t? What exactly is the science behind some of our most embarrassing (and seemingly callous) moments? 

Can’t take a joke

So, why do we laugh when we really shouldn’t? Adrienne Wood, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, calls this kind of uncontrollable laughter “affiliation laughter”. It’s less about the joker, and more about the sound. Affiliative laughter is our automatic attempt to try and diffuse a situation, no matter how inappropriate laughter may be in that moment. 

“Laughter tells everyone not to take things seriously. It’s telling the people around you how they should react to your awkwardness,” she says.

Laughing during a break up, at your dad’s funeral, or when someone injures themselves isn’t a callous response – it’s your instinctual way of diffusing an awkward or tense situation. Wood explains that laughter in those kinds of situations “…signals non-threatening intentions and undoes social tension,” so while your mom might not be too pleased with you for giggling at that little old lady who fell down the stairs, you’re most likely not a sociopath

Of course, it’s not just other people that we laugh at. Last year I got third degree burns all over my hands (I was making 2 Minute Noodles in the microwave, don’t ask), and I laughed and cried all the way to the hospital. Laughter can also be a way of self-soothing, similar to when a cat purrs when it’s sick rather than in response to human interaction. 

“When you laugh after doing something awkward, the laughter signals that you know you violated a social norm and it helps to appease the people around you. When you’re in an awkward situation with another person, I think the laughter might help to calm you down a bit and also signal to the other person that you’re not a threat.” 

Okay, my examples weren’t really “awkward” but the self-soothing idea still stands. 

Even Alexa does it. 

Am I a sociopath for laughing at the wrong time? 

No, you’re almost definitely not a sociopath. Laughing at the “wrong time” isn’t about you finding something inherently funny – it’s usually a way to diffuse a tense or awkward social situation, or in response to something traumatic as a way of self-soothing. So, why do we laugh when we really shouldn’t? The brain has a funny way of dealing with things.