In lectures regarding the functions of different human emotions, the topic that interests most participants is when I discuss the role of laughter as a form of social dominance. Participants have told me that they have found it hard to find research on this. So, in re-cap, I often explain that if any animal was to approach you baring it's teeth, you would not see this as a friendly gesture. Certainly in primates it is a sign of aggression. Likewise, whilst we all love a good laugh, we fear being laughed at. Public speaking often fills most people with dread, but it is not the speaking but the potential for public ridicule that lies behind this fear. Likewise, if you want to know who cares about who in your own social group, watch what happens when there is laughter in the group. Each individual will immediately glance at the person they feel closest too.
My theory is that laughter is always stimulated by the breaking of a rule. Be it social, grammatical, logical or linguistic. Laughter and rule breaking emanates from the politics of primates. When Alpha primates are challenged, it is not the challenger who strikes but their supporters. Laughter is therefore about bonding, in-group-out-group behavior and ultimately over throwing the established order of the group. For those working in prison or hostel settings: how many fights and arguments break out after 'banter' between individuals or groups?
This research has been supported more recently, by a fascinating study that showed that you can predict the social status of individuals by their laughter. Click here for the full study.