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Laughing Babies Research Study Continues

Laughing Babies Research Study Continues at JSC

March 1, 2009

How babies develop laughter and humor is the focus of a research study at Johnson State College in Vermont.

Dubbed “The Laughing Babies Study,” the research is an effort to determine how infants discover humor and amusement, and its importance to bonding and attachment.

It is one of few such studies ever done on infants, although there have been similar studies in older children. The study is being conducted exclusively at Johnson State College.

“The purpose of the study is to observe how infants develop laughter and humor in the first six months of life,” said Gina Mireault, Ph.D., a professor in Behavioral Sciences at Johnson State College, who is leading the study. “There are only a handful of studies observing the course of infant laughter development, and those have concentrated on the later part of the first year. We want to know how infants discover what is amusing, and how and when they attempt to amuse other people.

“Infant humor is significant for three main reasons,” Mireault continued. “First, it gives us insight into what infants are observing and learning about the world. Prominent psychological theories suggest that children do not understand the minds of other people until they are about four years old. However, we have good evidence that older babies know how to use teasing, for example, to make other people laugh. This suggests that infants understand considerably more about other people’s minds than they’ve been given credit for.

“Secondly, humorous interactions between parents and babies have all of the elements that promote emotional bonding, such as attachment. We think that humor development may be one of the key ingredients for a baby’s healthy emotional development.

“Finally, humor research gives us insight into evolution, as there is plentiful evidence that nonhuman primates and other mammals play and exhibit expressions similar to smiling and laughing. Since babies also exhibit these behaviors early in development, it suggests that nature plays a role,” Mireault added.

Dr. Mireault noted the work of Dr. Vasu Reddy of the University of Portsmouth, England, with whom she trained, who has conducted similar studies of infant humor, but in babies older than seven months.

“We are building on her efforts by looking for the types of things she has documented, but in a younger group of babies,” said Dr. Mireault. “There has also been a smattering of studies on infant laughter starting with Charles Darwin, but with most published between the 1960s to the present.

“Our study is different from the others because: we are using a longitudinal approach, following the same group of infants over time; we are starting with younger babies; we are using naturalistic observation instead of an experimental approach; and we are focusing on humor as an interpersonal process instead of a cognitive process.

“Of primary interest is for us is how infants discover amusement/humor, rather that what they find amusing. We believe that parents provide the stimulus through games, tickling, silly faces, etc., but that more importantly, they provide humor cues. That is, they laugh and smile, etc., so that they come to define these experiences for the baby as amusing instead of threatening or boring,” Dr. Mireault added.

To be eligible to participate, babies must be full-term at birth, and are followed starting when the baby is three months until they are six months old, with an additional follow-up at 12 months. The study has enrolled 20 babies and their mothers, who can earn up to $155 for their time participating in the research.

Mothers are outfitted with digital voice recorders when their babies are three months old. They provide brief descriptions of events their infants seemed to find amusing, and things their infants do to amuse their mothers. Mothers and babies are also videotaped playing together for 10 minutes in their homes on four occasions.

In her project description, Dr. Mireault notes that prior research has shown that humor includes neural, cognitive, behavioral, and social components and thus engages a complex psychological system. Despite this complexity, infants in the first year of life exhibit a surprising capacity for humor, laughter, and play.

“In short, humor and laughter have serious evolutionary and developmental significance,” Dr. Mireault added. “The purpose of the present study is to extend the current research by exploring the interpersonal nature of humor development in naturalistic settings in the first six months, as well as the relationship between humor development, temperament, and attachment.”

Heidi Anderson, of St. Albans, Vermont, is a participating parent, with her son, Rowan McVicar, her first child. “I saw the ad in the paper for the study and thought it would be fun and interesting,” said Anderson, a freelance writer specializing in technical topics.

“Because Rowan is our first child, we have a lot of interest in how he grows and develops, and interacts with other people. The process is fairly easy and fun. I make my observations, and my husband, Christopher, makes his observations. Every week, there’s something new… the way he smiles and plays, and interactions change constantly,” Anderson added.

Mallory Sargent is a Johnson State College student working with parents and children in the study, and has observed Heidi Anderson and her son, amongst others, for the study.

“Working with Heidi and Rowan has been a very great experience,” said Sargent, 23, of St. Albans, Vermont, a psychology senior who hopes to graduate in the fall. “Heidi has been really nice and seems interested in the study.

“In a way I think Heidi may pay more attention to details having to do with Rowan because he is her first child, which will be nice for the study. It has been an interesting experience following the two of them for the last four months. I have seen how they interact with one another and how they have developed their relationship in terms of humor. Observing how Heidi and Chris, her husband, interact with Rowan is interesting… they have very different ways of trying to get Rowan to smile and laugh. This is true of other parents in the study: men and women seem to have very different ways of interacting with their babies.

“The one thing I have discovered during this study is how humor is formed. I currently have followed four babies and it is interesting how different they are in what they think is funny, and relates directly to what the parents find humorous,” Sargent added.

Sargent noted that infants quickly develop different types of laughter for different situations: “the laughter of joy during rough and tumble play;” “helpless laughter when being tickled;” “the laugh of success when they finally accomplish something;” and even “a polite laugh when they child is no longer amused by interaction but still makes a response.”

“One which really stood out for me was the artificial, or fake, laugh,” said Sargent. “This laugh may be used to get attention or join in when others are laughing, but when the infant is not included in the interaction. I was really curious to see if any of the participants would experience this type of laughter, which in fact Heidi stated that Rowan did. I find this amazing that an infant will use laughter to get attention and join in… in a way this seems so advanced to me.”

The other two JSC students in the study are Merlin Poutre, 23, of Underhill, VT, and Caitlyn Dias, 22, of Hudson, MA.

The three JSC students recently heard their entry had been accepted into the Conference of Undergraduate Research “Posters on the Hill” event, May 4 to 5 in Washington, DC. They are among a select group of undergraduates, as only 60 posters were chosen from around the country to represent all scientific disciplines in an effort to promote the cause of undergraduate research. In addition to exhibiting their work on Capitol Hill, they will get the chance to meet with Vermont Senators Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders, and Representative Peter Welch.

Results of the study will be presented at a conference in Washington, D.C. in April, and published in a scholarly journal in fall this year or spring 2010. The study is funded by a 12-month grant from the Vermont Genetics Network, which recently awarded a second year of funding through 2010 that will allow three additional students to gain research experience.