Journal of Nonverbal Behavior

, Volume 27, Issue 3, pp 183–200 | Cite as

Reconsidering the Evolution of Nonlinguistic Communication: The Case of Laughter

  • Michael J. Owren
  • Jo-Anne Bachorowski


Nonlinguistic communication is typically proposed to convey representational messages, implying that particular signals are associated with specific signaler emotions, intentions, or external referents. However, common signals produced by both nonhuman primates and humans may not exhibit such specificity, with human laughter for example showing significant diversity in both acoustic form and production context. We therefore outline an alternative to the representational approach, arguing that laughter and other nonlinguistic vocalizations are used to influence the affective states of listeners, thereby also affecting their behavior. In the case of laughter, we propose a primary function of accentuating or inducing positive affect in the perceiver in order to promote a more favorable stance toward the laugher. Two simple strategies are identified, namely producing laughter with acoustic features that have an immediate impact on listener arousal, and pairing these sounds with positive affect in the listener to create learned affective responses. Both depend on factors like the listener's current emotional state and past interactions with the vocalizer, with laughers predicted to adjust their sounds accordingly. This approach is used to explain findings from two experimental studies that examined the use of laughter in same-sex and different-sex dyads composed of either friends or strangers, and may be applicable to other forms of nonlinguistic communication.

acoustics affect induction human laughter nonlinguistic communication primate calls 


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Copyright information

© Human Sciences Press, Inc. 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyCornell UniversityIthaca
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyWilson Hall, Vanderbilt UniversityNashville

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