Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Big Bang theory of Laughter

The video above shows a popular TV program which uses canned laughter on top of the show in order to elicit laughter from the watching audience, and make them find the show funnier. This effect occurs regardless of the fact that the laughter in the background of the show is obviously fake, and does not really reflect the quality of the joke being told.
This phenomenon is due to social proofing. This is the idea that we look at what others are doing in social situations to help us decide what the socially appropriate thing is to do. If others around us are doing a particular thing, then we assume that it is the correct and socially acceptable thing to do, so we are also more likely to do it. Conversely, if others in a situation are refraining from a particular action, then we are also more likely to refrain as we think that it may be socially unacceptable, and others would judge us negatively.

A study by Fuller and Sheehy-Skeffington (1974) showed this phenomenon. They fabricated a series of recordings with either high or low humour content. They then either placed canned laughter on top of the track, or left it as it was without the canned laughter. They then asked participants to rate the humour of the recordings and also recorded the number of distinct expressions of amusement such as smiles or laughter that the participant showed whilst listening to the clips. The table below shows their results:

Canned Laughter
No Canned Laughter
Amusement Expression

Their results showed that when there was canned laughter in the recording, the participants gave a significantly higher rating of humour than when there was no canned laughter. Also, they were significantly more likely to show expressions of amusement when there was canned laughter than when there was not.
This means that by using the canned laughter on top of the show, it makes the show seem funnier, as the audience are more likely to find the show more humorous and to laugh more often. This may raise viewing rates, and increase the audience of the show compared to if there was no canned laughter.


Fuller, R. G., & Sheehy-Skeffington, A. (1974). Effects of group laughter on responses to humourous material, a replication and extension. Psychological Reports, 35, 531-534.

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