I've seen people (including myself) that laugh for no apparent reason in really serious situations, such as in an argument or when receiving bad news. Although the other party is clearly very upset, it seems they have the worst possible reaction: they start laughing. It's probably not because they find it funny, so what does trigger it?
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This could be what the Psychology Today article "Why We Laugh", (Lickerman, 2011) refers to as 'nervous laughter', suggesting that this response is both for reassurance (as suggested by Tyler Langan's comment) and also a means to build resilience in the face of potential trauma, specifically (from the article):
Further, it is suggested here, that the nervous laughter is a means to protect our dignity and sense of control.
Laughter relieves stress and lightens the mood.
I have long suspected that laughter has a dual-purpose as a defense mechanism, when the "serious" situation is an embodied assailant.
I think it laughter is counter to the nature of an assault, which creates an element of confusing that the laugh-er (prey) retains control over. This concept of retaining control follows suite with the long-standing ideas that laughter relieves stress and increases coping in the laugh-er.
I think this underscores why laughter from attacked-characters in stories is a cross-over signal for their indomitable nature.
You can take this a level further into the psychology of such situations: when the prey introduces a confusing component to the 'theater of war', they can attempt to infer many things about their assailant via the response given to this introduced-confusion.
This in addition to what others have answered, that laughter may be a form of defense mechanism. One starts to laugh as a way to reduce emotional stress.
There is a theory that laughter like this expresses a reaction to absurdity.
When a situation is serious but cannot be assimilated because of dissociation or shock, it is in the same state as an absurd statement -- you are trying to take it seriously, or find meaning in it, but you just can't. You keep giving up, but then trying again.
Since the situation is real in this case, the impulse toward laughter can be much stronger than real humorous laughter evokes. In my experience it is accompanied by a specific feeling of dissociation, like living in a Lewis Carroll novel.
People who use forms of therapy that involve planned confrontation can evoke this kind of irresistible laughter by challenging a core belief so directly that the client detaches in the same way they might in an emergency.
protected by Christiaan Aug 14 '15 at 13:48
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