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Your Anticipatory Laughter: The Hilarity of Things to Come

Why laughter can be prelude as well as postscript.

Key points

  • There are times when we laugh not after some vulnerability is highlighted but, rather, immediately before it.
  • We’ll predict how certain traits or behaviors might cause ourselves or others to lose status down the road.
  • The resulting feeling of amusement expresses what might be called “anticipatory” or “preemptive” laughter.
Nappy / Pexels
Source: Nappy / Pexels

In the realm of physics, it would seem that cause always precedes effect. In the realm of human behavior, and for our laughter in particular, things appear to be much more flexible.

Anticipatory laughter

We have all experienced times when laughter comes about before some phenomenon or event. Indeed, just the idea of something happening can be enough to set us off. A friend might telegraph their intent to tell a story we know will cause us mild embarrassment. We imagine the coming reaction of others nearby and, because laughter affirms a sense of shared vulnerability, we feel compelled to express it proactively. We convey, in effect, “What you are about to hear is not going to be flattering to me, but just remember that you have shortcomings, too.”

Anticipatory laughter can be thought of as the preemptive communication of a desire for parity, an early endorsement of the status quo ante (Simon 2008).

We’ll look in the mirror at the crazy outfit we’ve chosen for the Halloween party and giggle as we imagine our friends’ likely reaction, or when we get picked as a teammate for a game we know is going to make us look uncoordinated, or as we’re about to amble across a small, stony stream that’s certain to be cold and slippery. These sorts of situations are ones we are confident will put us at risk of discomfort or embarrassment, and our smiles and laughter arise from the anticipation of expected consequences.

The same process can occur when others seem to be heading toward a concerning situation. Instead of the self-lifting laughter that results from our own expected difficulties, we use lifting laughter to bolster the status of those on the brink. Our laughter declares, “That hot sauce you’re about to try is going to smack you across the face just the way it did mine”; or “The magician you’re watching so intently is about to make you look very silly, and I speak from experience.”

When that other person isn’t so much a friend as a “frenemy” (or worse), the message is the same, even if the sentiment is slightly different. Instead of laying the groundwork by sympathetically laughing “with” them, we would express lowering laughter. Using common parlance, we would be laughing “at” them. In that circumstance, the exact same affirmation of mutual vulnerability declares, in effect, that our rival may think their status is a couple notches higher than ours, but, in fact, it’s really not. “Ha-ha… go ahead—the lame excuse you’re about to try on the boss is probably going to get you fired.”

Ketut Subiyanto / Pexels
Source: Ketut Subiyanto / Pexels

Laughing preemptively during play

These skills are learned early in life, and, for most people, they come naturally. Indeed, much of our play behavior is meant to help us make projections about a future state, and so even young infants will regularly exhibit anticipatory laughter. It is generated, for example, by the feeling prompted through the mere threat of tickling—the “oouchygouchy-goo-zoooom” primer whose effects we observe even among the Great Apes (Fossey 1983). Play wrestling and play-chasing solicit the same sort of preemptive response. It’s used not only by those being pursued but by the ticklers and the chasers as well. They’ll often express some combination of lifting and self-lowering laughter proactively to keep their target from mistaking the encounter as a serious one. In essence, they laugh to promote feelings of safety and equality, two essential prerequisites of effective play.

Looking into the future

Anticipatory laughter may seem a special case but, in reality, feelings of amusement regularly involve our looking ahead to what might be. Much of human cognition is dedicated to making predictions about what is likely to occur. We’ll experience certain emotional states not only because of what has happened but also because of what we think will happen—either to us, and those we care about, or because of us, and those we care about. Anxiety is predicated on such feelings.

Karolina Gabowska / Pexels
Source: Karolina Gabowska / Pexels

So, when someone humorously points out a potential shortcoming, we’ll consider how it might play out in their future. Will their girlfriend or boyfriend become irritated with them? Might it cost them a career opportunity? Would it embarrass their parents? Is there a possibility it might lead to injury or illness?

It's an ability we rely on in virtually all aspects of life. It would be quite odd if laughter and humor were any exception.

For an example of anticipatory laughter, listen to the audience’s reaction at time stamp 0:17 in this "Seinfeld" clip on YouTube. It appears about a quarter of them correctly guessed Jerry was completely unfamiliar with this rather specialized piece of technology.

© John Charles Simon


Fossey, D. 1983. Gorillas in the Mist. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Simon, J. C. (2008). Why We Laugh: A New Understanding. Indianapolis: Starbrook Publishing.

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