Psychopaths May Be Immune to Contagious Laughter

By Lacy Schley | January 22, 2018 11:00 am

(Credit: Screengrab/YouTube)

Having a good laugh is, among other things, a great way to bond socially. In fact, we’re much more likely to crow when we’re with other people than we are when we’re alone.

And once you hear someone start, it’s hard not to crack up, too. However, a recent study in the journal Current Biology posits that this phenomenon might not be contagious for everyone, specifically for teen boys at risk of psychopathy.

Elizabeth O’Nions of the University College London and her team tested three groups of boys aged 11-16. The first — the control group — was made up of 31 boys who were developmentally typical; a second group consisted of 32 boys who displayed disruptive behaviors and high-callous traits that indicate a risk of developing psychopathy; the final group had 31 boys who also displayed disruptive behaviors but low-callous traits.

Each cohort was asked to listen to a recording with actual, genuine laughter, fake laughter and also crying sounds. While they were listening, the researchers took fMRI brain scans of each boy. After the scans, the kids answered questions about the recording, such as, “How much does hearing the sound make you feel like joining in and/or feeling the emotions?” and “How much does the sound reflect a genuinely felt emotion?” and rated them on a scale of one to seven.

O’Nions and her team had predicted the two groups of antisocial boys wouldn’t react as strongly to genuine laughter, both in their answers and in the activity of the relevant “premotor” and “motor” brain areas — the parts of the brain that get us ready to join in a giggle fit and the ones that make it happen.

And sure enough, compared to the control group, both of the other two sets of boys had lower levels of brain activity in these regions. Yet only the kids in the high-callous trait group, the ones at risk of psychopathy, were less likely to say they felt like joining in on the laughter they heard — those in the low-callous trait cohort were just as likely to want to laugh as the developmentally typical boys.

The authors argue it’s possible the high-callous kids’ atypical processing of laughter could actually up their psychopathy risk, since they’re more likely to miss out on such a common and important way to bond with others.

Or, maybe, people just aren’t funny.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, top posts
  • Uncle Al

    A psychopath is a sociopath with goals. A sociopath is a just man in an unjust society. The just and proper solution is to make all society insane so that there is neither goal nor penalty to be gained by deviant behavior.

    • Erik Bosma

      I think they’ve already accomplished that just and proper solution you’ve proposed, Unc.

      • Uncle Al

        Snowflake life, free money, immunity to law, perversity of love, denial of objective knowledge, hatred of America –
        What will be Left of the world? Slaughter is the plural of laughter.

        • Tom in Tempe

          That last sentence made me laugh out loud, sitting here by myself.

        • Travis Fussell

          Uncle Al, you really need a girlfriend.

  • Erik Bosma

    I rarely laugh because I just don’t think very much is funny. Most people laugh at things that I find are hurtful or just plain stupid. Like people falling down stairs or getting kicked in the ‘nads. I find British humour, especially Monty Python and crew, funny especially their skill with wit..

  • StanChaz

    Hmm. have you ever seen Trump laugh?

  • Prof Quill

    I don’t do a whole lot of laughing alone at TV or movies [but I did laugh a lot at Airplane!], and laugh tracks don’t do much other than annoy me (especially when a character says or does something that is simply not that humorous and the laugh track is trying to tell me it’s hilarious). I much prefer comedies minus the laughs [Simpsons, which doesn’t use a track, had an episode where they did it as a spoof]. Now that I think of it, most of the ‘animated comedies’ don’t use one either, maybe that’s why I like them.

    On rather rare occasion, a particularly funny moment, and for me that is something that is ironic, very contemporary, sarcastic, Monty-Python-esque, will cause me a moment of breakout laughter.

    When I’m with OTHERS, it is a different dynamic, although I’m still not much of a laugh-at-every-minor-joke on TV, but I will get more vocal with my approval.

  • Scott S.

    The are some serious flaws in this testing methodology. There is no such thing as “being at risk” of psychopathy. You are either one or not, from birth. It takes a 12 point evaluation to determine if you are a psychopath. Psychopathy is testable generally after 12 years of age. Since, by its description this was not done, it is very likely the group that was disruptive and “high-callous traits” was a mix of various other pathologies. There has been no previous linkage between the Mirror Neuron System and psychopathy, which the study purports. The Mirror Neuron System is the system of empathy in which we mimic facial expressions as a means of internally identifying others emotional state (empathy) and the system responsible for copycat laughing. Most studies of psychopathy have shown normal of high levels of empathy in psychopaths. One of the 12 test points of psychopathy is to examine for un-genuine empathy or “charm” – a trait of psychopaths which they use for manipulation. This manipulation can not be done without empathy. So in essence, this study was testing for a trait not associated with the pathology of psychopathy with a subject group that had dubiously defined behavior patterns. I could go on and on…. but I think you get the picture. I can think of several things this ill-defined test might have recorded, but psychopathy was not one of them.


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