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Dave Roepke, Published September 07 2010

Laughter plays a serious role in life

When Stephenson Beck’s father died recently, he and his family had an unexpected reaction while picking out the headstone.

They laughed – a lot.

“We were probably laughing to a point where the person helping us out felt awkward,” said Beck, an assistant professor of communication at North Dakota State University.

His own experience supports the point made in a pair of recent studies he co-authored: Yukking it up isn’t necessarily a laughing matter. It can play a crucial role in serious situations such as a jury deliberation or a flood fight.

“If you think laughter is just the result of a joke, you’re oversimplifying the influence laughter has on us in group interaction,” Beck said.

Findings in a study published in the August issue of Small Group Research that Beck wrote with a fellow communications professor from North Carolina State University looked at the role laughter had in the jury deliberations for a 2004 double murder trial in Ohio.

Deliberations of the jury, usually top secret, were filmed for an ABC documentary. Beck’s plan was to analyze the transcripts of their discussion with a focus on decision making.

But he and Joann Keyton, the NCSU professor, were struck by something they couldn’t explain. The strangers tasked with the life-and-death decisions a jury makes in a capital case were like his family shopping for a headstone.

They laughed – a lot.

The researchers identified 51 times that jurors laughed over four days of deliberations and argue in their paper the chuckles had nothing to do with humor. Laughs helped the strangers develop relationships, share information and evaluate procedures.

“They were using it strategically,” Beck said. “It was a stalling technique.”

In a breakdown of the specific functions each of the laughs performed, the study classified six of the 51 laughter episodes as releasing tension – the most repeated purpose.

In a still-unpublished study of laughter during the meetings city officials held in Fargo during the 2009 floods, Beck found laughs performed a similar tension-cutting task.

During the anxious days prior to the record-setting crest, Beck said, city leaders had two main themes they needed to emphasize: urgency and calmness.

Urgency can be explicitly expressed, but simultaneously evoking a stress-lowing tranquility takes a more indirect approach, Beck said.

“We can’t just say, ‘Everybody relax,’ ” he said. “You have to have some other sort of emotional communication, and I think laughter accomplishes that.”

Mayor Dennis Walaker, who often cracked a joke in the public flood meetings in 2009, agreed a touch of mirth has a big upside.

“The doom and gloom, you need some of that. But everybody needs a little bit of humor, even in difficult situations,” Walaker said. “That’s why I think it’s extremely, extremely important.”

Walaker’s mayoral merriment wasn’t the only source of guffaws in the flood meetings.

The study Beck wrote in conjunction with NDSU professor Robert Littlefield and graduate student Andrea Weber found one instance of a televised 2009 flood meeting in which there was a laughing sequence on average every couple minutes.

“They wanted to put the public at ease,” Beck said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535