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Why Personality Impacts Every Aspect of Our Laugh Response

Temperament affects not just what we find amusing but also how we respond to it.

Key points

  • Temperament has a sizable influence on when and to what degree we will express laughter.
  • The Mutual Vulnerability Theory reveals this variation is, in part, how we interpret any given trait as constituting a vulnerability.
  • It also makes clear how personality impacts one’s tendency to communicate a feeling of shared vulnerability with others.

Scholars who study human behavior in general, and laughter specifically, recognize there are significant differences in how people use this distinctive and enigmatic vocalization. Accounting for the many factors that generate these differences is a critical component of any theory that purports to explain exactly why we laugh…and, of course, why we sometimes don’t.

The Mutual Vulnerability Theory of Laughter

From my vantage point, at least, the Mutual Vulnerability Theory of Laughter (MVT) has proven a valuable tool in this enterprise. It posits that laughter is a form of nonverbal communication and that it expresses a feeling of mutual, or shared, vulnerability. In doing so, the theory suggests two main arenas from which variability can originate. First, people will differ in what they perceive as being a vulnerability. A physical characteristic or behavior that is considered unremarkably “normal,” or that which is thought of as seriously “deficient” will not typically foster laughter—at least not without other factors at play (see my post regarding “distancing”). And second, once a vulnerability is highlighted, it is not automatic that individuals also have the desire to convey its communal nature. As with all such exchanges, the relationship one has with potential receivers, and other factors such as their anticipated reaction, shapes whether or not one will outwardly express certain sentiments.

I’ve previously discussed one individual-level variable, age, which affects how we perceive traits as vulnerabilities. Here I’d like to bring another that will affect both this process and our propensity to communicate any feeling of amusement with others.

Personality and Laughter

Personality is a difficult concept to address in such a short piece, and there is considerable ongoing debate on the degree to which personality is genetically, as opposed to culturally, determined. For our purposes, however, we might consider personality to be one’s genetically forged intellectual and emotional predispositions in combination with the influential early-life experiences that shape the character traits one relies on to formulate long-term life strategies.

Any Lane/Pexels
Any Lane/Pexels

Some of the ways we describe personalities are similar to those used to describe shorter-term moods, ones that we all contend with over the course of hours or days. We say, for example, that someone is a happy person or an unhappy person. We describe them as having certain persistent temperaments: anxious, calm, sad or melancholy, bubbly, sour, or angry because they’ve a propensity to settle into these moods.

Sometimes we refer to the way they tend to approach life’s challenges: dynamic, steady, flighty, aggressive, introspective, emotional, cerebral, kind, suspicious, forgiving, demanding, curious, egotistical, introverted, or extroverted. Or we may associate people with animals or animal stereotypes: a pit bull, teddy bear, or owlish personality. Because personalities are so elementally unique, generalizations are always problematic. Still, there are tendencies and types that might be used as a basis for limited comparisons.

Our personalities affect the way we perceive almost everything we experience. Those with a generally positive disposition, for instance, tend to be more open to new ideas, more sympathetic, and more able to look for the benefits arising from even challenging situations. They see things in a different “light” than fearful or angry persons. It follows that various personality types will differ in their view of vulnerability as well.

Recall, too, that in the case of laughter, we speak about “mutual vulnerability,” which means there are always two parts to the equation—your view of both others’ vulnerabilities and your own. Personality type necessarily shapes both. A person with a bitter, spiteful personality is more likely to see someone else’s relatively normal traits as vulnerabilities and their minor shortcomings as deficiencies. Someone who is self-loathing or highly insecure will see his or her own traits, behaviors, and social status differently than most other personality types. Highly sensitive and extroverted individuals will be more in tune with the feelings of others, more sympathetic, and more prone to convey acceptance and equality than less-sensitive people. Those who understand the importance of cooperation and forgiveness will see vulnerability differently than those who are combative and petty.

Andrea Piacuardio/Pexels
Andrea Piacuardio/Pexels

The same personality traits will also influence expressiveness. If one is described as open, outgoing, sociable, warm, affable, and friendly, it’s not surprising that, once a vulnerability is noticed, the threshold for initiating sympathetic, (“lifting,” “self-lifting,” or “self-lowering”) laugh responses will be substantially lower than one who is reserved, introverted, cold, aloof, and insensitive. And for “lowering” (derisive, scornful) laughter, the reverse would be true.

These are generalities, of course. Any differences in the perception of vulnerability resulting from personality type will only show a pattern over time. When psychiatrists and psychologists use a patient’s laugh response—or his or her approach to humor—as an indicator of personality type, they do so (or at least should do so) over the course of many weeks and months, not hours or days. One, or even several, examples of laughter or humor can’t give an accurate picture of an individual’s inherent temperament or mindset.

In later posts, you will gain a better understanding of why this is so.

© John Charles Simon