Laughter can play key roles in group-communication and group dynamics - even when there's nothing funny going on, a new study has revealed.
North Carolina State University researchers were given access to the full transcript of jury deliberations in the 2004 Ohio trial of Mark Ducic, a white male charged with two murders and 30 additional counts, largely related to drug violations.
Dr. Joann Keyton and Dr. Stephenson Beck of North Dakota State University were struck by the amount of laughter in the transcript.
Keyton notes that there is very little research on the role of laughter in communication, particularly when divorced from humour.
Analysis showed that laughter could be used as a tool, intentionally and strategically, to control communication and affect group dynamics.
For example, one juror was very vocal and made it clear early in the case that she was opposed to the death penalty. In one instance, when that juror agreed with other jury members, one of the other members said "She's so smart," resulting in laughter from other members of the group.
"When juries form, they don't know each other," Keyton said.
"So part of the jury process is to create relationships within the group - for example, figuring out who thinks like me, who will have the same position I have. There are power dynamics at play," she added.
Even when a discussion merits no laughter - for instance when the jury couldn't decide whether a sentence related to one of the charges was for 30 days or 30 years - it led to widespread laughter.
Keyton explained that laughing eases tension and is one way of dealing with ambiguity and tension in situations where a group is attempting to make consequential decisions and informal power dynamics are in play.
"It is usually done in private, such as in corporate board meetings or judicial proceedings. But laughter is something that occurs frequently, and not only because something is funny. Nobody in the jury was laughing at jokes," she said.
The article is published in a special issue of Small Group Dynamics.