Study co-author Dr. Joann Keyton, a professor of communication at North Carolina State University, and Dr. Stephenson Beck of North Dakota State University studied the transcript of a jury deciding a death penalty case to see how the role of laughter is used by people to signal support -- or lack of support -- for other people's positions within a group.
The researchers say laughter matters, even during a serious group task, but people try to suppress it in formal settings.
"There are very few opportunities to see group decision making, with major consequences, in a public setting," Keyton says in a statement. "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."
The study published in a special issue of Small Group Dynamics says laughter is one way of dealing with ambiguity and tension in situations in which a group is attempting to make consequential decisions and informal power dynamics are in play.