Successful social exchanges require empathy

Christine Spencer, Gary McKeown, Orla McCormick, Michael Stevenson

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstractpeer-review


Successful social exchanges require empathy, a complex and elusive phenomenon. Increasing empirical attention is currently being placed on the examination of interpersonal empathic behaviour across contexts. How do we effectively signal to others that we have understood and attended to their emotions? We propose that laughter acts as a specific signal of empathy. As a strong social bonding mechanism, laughter signals to both interlocuters in a social interaction that each person has understood what the other is thinking and implying. It was therefore hypothesised that the presence of laughter acts as an empathic cue, and that high-intensity laughter, specifically, acts as the strongest empathic signal. Recorded material of people engaged in dyadic social interactions was obtained from two contrasting audiovisual databases. Eight pairs of friends and eight pairs of strangers interacting through video-call were selected for the study. One-minute clips were selected for each dyad from minutes five to six in the interaction. Each minute was split into three twenty-second clips, which were reliably coded by two research assistants for the presence of visual and auditory laughter. Every instance of auditory laughter was then coded as high-intensity or low-intensity. The clip set was then subjected to an online empathy-rating experiment, whereby participants were asked to rate how much each person was empathising with their partner. Empathy was defined in terms of the degree to which each person demonstrated an understanding of their partner's thoughts and feelings. The results showed that the presence of laughter significantly predicted perceived empathy. This effect was most strongly observed when laughter was rated as high-intensity. Therefore, the results support the notion that laughter acts a strong signal that a person is empathising with another.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 23 Mar 2018
EventNorthern Ireland Branch of the British Psychological Society 2018 Annual Conference - Dundalk, Ireland
Duration: 22 Mar 201823 Mar 2018


ConferenceNorthern Ireland Branch of the British Psychological Society 2018 Annual Conference
Abbreviated titleNIBPS 2018


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