Laughter is best described as a physiological response to humor. In fact, humans can giggle as early as three months old. The fact that laughter kicks in before babies can even speak shows us the importance it plays in daily life: As a nonverbal communication cue, laughter plays a major role in social communication. The simple act allows us to connect with others.
However, chortles can also divide us: Some people can’t help but laugh during extremely stressful situations such as a funeral. Typically, nervous laughter results from feelings of anxiety, tension, confusion or even embarrassment.
Nervous laughter was first studied by psychologist Stanley Milgram in the 1960s. Milgram conducted famous obedience experiments in which participants referred to as “teachers” were instructed to shock “learners” for wrong answers. The shocks increased in power from a slight shock of 15 volts to a severe shock of 450 volts. Though the learners didn’t actually receive zaps, the teachers believed they did.
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