The Science of Laughing Through the Tears

A new study shows that illogical reactions may help people regulate their emotions.

Oriana Aragón was watching Conan O’Brien’s late night show on TBS when she noticed something strange: The fashion model and actress Leslie Bibb—O’Brien’s guest for the evening—began describing “a thing where if people have babies, I’m like, ‘Oh, that baby’s so cute, I just want to punch it in the face. Like, ‘That dog is cute, I’m gonna kick it in the head.’ I don’t know, I just want to squeeze something.”

Aragón, a psychology researcher at Yale University, was intrigued, so she called her father the next day. “I told him about this actress that wanted to kick puppies, and he said, ‘Well, it’s not that different from grandma pinching your cheeks,’” Aragón explains. “All these similar situations where weird negative expressions come out … Had my dad not made that very flat observation, I probably would have let it go.”

Now, Aragón has authored a paper on such incongruous (or “dimorphous”) behaviors that will soon be published in Psychological Science. Her research reveals that expressions like “tears of joy,” “smiles of sadness,” and “nervous laughter” may have a basis in science. The key is emotional regulation.

“If you get into a very high or very low emotion that you're almost to the point of being overwhelmed, you become incapacitated so you can't function well,” Aragón tells me. “Emotional homeostasis is important for people so they can be in control of their cognitive, social, and psychological functions."

In other words, people may laugh when they’re nervous in order to moderate their nervous feelings; likewise, people may cry when they’re happy to recover from distracting giddiness. Aragón speculates that these mismatched expressions also have social purposes: Laughing to the point of excess (or wanting to punch a puppy when you’re overwhelmed by its cuteness) can signal that you've had enough of a certain stimulus and want it to stop.

To measure these effects, the study tested subjects who looked at images of cute babies, asking them to record their reactions to emotionally charged situations, such as weddings and reunions. Some of the questions included whether when looking at “an extremely cute baby, I want to pinch those cheeks,” and whether the subject considered himself or herself to be “the type of person that will tell a cute child ‘I could just eat you up!’ through gritted teeth.” (Previous research has shown that viewing pictures of infants can produce “intense positive emotions and releases of dopamine in the brain.” Here, treat yourself.)

But rather than just saying ‘Aw’ or smiling a lot, many of the subjects responded aggressively to the baby pictures with “growling, squeezing, biting, and pinching.” According to Aragón, this shows that cute stimuli can elicit these incongruous expressions. Ultimately, the study found that people who behaved in this way were able to moderate their intense emotions more quickly. Still, Aragón says the evolutionary reasons for such behavior remain unclear.

“If this is one way in which people develop or regulate their emotions, maybe it’s a mechanism that could be related to evolution,” she explains. “But by no means does my research say that yet. As far as health, we know that regulating emotion is important to your work, relationships, and well-being.”

That’s no exaggeration—various studies have shown that so-called emotion regulation is critical for health. Perhaps not surprisingly, some strategies for controlling your feelings are better than others. To begin with, the mere fact of believing that you can regulate your emotions has been correlated with “increased levels of well-being and decreased psychological distress.” In turn, individuals who reappraise negative feelings—meaning they take time to change their views on a situation to which they reacted negatively at first—“express greater positive emotion and lesser negative emotion.” Meanwhile, those who suppress their feelings display higher levels of dissatisfaction and worse interpersonal functioning.

Aragón says her findings may be related to what current Yale President Peter Salovey and his colleague John Mayer termed “emotional intelligence” in a seminal 1990 study, defined as “the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions.” Their subsequent research found that people who demonstrate higher emotional intelligence are “less apt to engage in problem behaviors, and [avoid] self-destructive, negative behaviors such as smoking, excessive drinking, drug abuse, or violent episodes with others.”

So, humans exhibit conscious and unconscious behaviors that can aid their emotional self-regulation. And while researchers haven’t yet determined all the underpinnings— biological, evolutionary, and neurological—to these behaviors, it’s clear that a seemingly inappropriate laugh or smile can help, too.