Groups of at least two people were covertly observed from a close distance. A group was selected if it was stable over time and the faces of all members were visible to the observer. As soon as a burst of laughter was produced within the group, the laughter subgroup size was counted.
By way of comparison, they also noted the size of the conversational group (people involved in a conversation and making eye contact) and the size of the overall social group.
Laughter appears to be a particularly intimate form of connecting. The average laughter subgroup was 2.72 with 84% of all laughter subgroups containing only two or three individuals. Laughter subgroups larger than four were rare, and none were larger than six. By comparison, conversational subgroups were slightly larger with an average of 2.93 people. Conversational subgroups larger than 5 were rare and 91% of all conversational subgroups contained four or fewer individuals.
With the intimate size of laughter it has a powerful grooming effect. It is even more intimate than conversations. With such intimacy laughter plays “an important role in facilitating everyday social interaction and bonding”. Laughter is a high-leverage bonding activity. By sharing a quick laugh several people bond in a couple of minutes. Laughter also happens to release endorphins, the pleasure chemical (that also happen to be released when primates groom).
(Reference: G Dezacache and R Dunbar, ‘Sharing a joke: the size of natural laughter groups’ in Evolution and Human Behavior, Vol 33 Issue 6 pp 775-779, November 2012)
Tips for Leaders
What might leaders do in thinking about laughter as part of a positive working environment? With these suggested implications we are assuming that jokes and laughter are healthy and not hurtful at someone else’s expense.
- First, as the leader your mindset matters. Are you of the view that there is a place for light-hearted moments at work and that laughter is a good thing?
- Set the tone that laughter is encouraged. You don’t need to be a teller of jokes, but you do need to send signals that you are willing to have a laugh and that there is a place for others to share humourous moments.
- Create the environment for laughter. It might be sharing light-hearted moments from your weekend, or at meetings and coffee catch-ups.
- Monitor that there is a reasonable amount of laughter occurring in your workplace. Healthy laughter is a good indicator of high engagement and high energy. And that people are bonding.