Laughing Matter: Priming and Mirroring


We’re always interested when neuroscience research shows how people respond to external cues, and some new research into the effects of sounds may well have neuromarketing implications. Researchers played a series of sounds for subjects and monitored their brain activity with an fMRI scanner. The sounds were either positive in nature (laughter, triumph) or negative (screaming, retching). The study, performed by Dr Sophie Scott, a Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, UCL (University College London), and fellow researchers at UCL and Imperial College London, is described in Laugh and the whole world laughs with you — Why the brain just can’t help itself:

The research team played a series sounds to volunteers whilst measuring their brain’s response using an fMRI scanner. Some of the sounds were positive, such as laughter or triumph, whilst others were unpleasant, such as screaming or retching. All of the sounds triggered a response in the volunteer’s brain in the premotor cortical region, which prepares the muscles in the face to respond accordingly, though the response was greater for positive sounds, suggesting that these were more contagious than negative sounds. The researchers believe this explains why we respond to laughter or cheering with an involuntary smile.

“We usually encounter positive emotions, such as laughter or cheering, in group situations, whether watching a comedy programme with family or a football game with friends,” says Dr Scott. “This response in the brain, automatically priming us to smile or laugh, provides a way of mirroring the behaviour of others, something which helps us interact socially. It could play an important role in building strong bonds between individuals in a group.”

The marketing significance of this work isn’t totally clear, but the fact that the sound of laughter produces a reflexive and unconscious smile (and apparent preparation for laughing) suggests that radio and TV advertisers need to pay close attention to the non-verbal part of their sound track. We’ve posted about priming (e.g., Priming the Customer, Thinking about Money) and mirroring (Mirror Marketing: More on Mirror Neurons and others) – this latest work on the effect of laughter and positive sounds is just one more indicator that the subtext of advertising may be as important as the overt message.

1 Comment
  1. […] Laughing Matter: Priming and Mirroring, cited new research showing that hearing the sound of laughter produced a response in subject’s brain in the premotor cortical region, triggering an unconscious smile and apparently preparing the subject to laugh. This work almost certainly provides the neuroscience backup that explains why television comedies have resorted to laugh tracks and live audiences to make their shows seem more entertaining. It also explains why standup comedians need to “get an audience going”, and why live audiences for television shows usually see a “warmup” comic before taping actually starts. In every case, the sound of others laughing (even if that sound is taped) prepares the individual to laugh himself. There’s a metaphor for marketers here: entertainers adopted these techniques long before MRI scans existed, based on many years of experience. To some degree, that will be one of the major impacts of neuromarketing research: providing the theoretical and scientific foundation for techniques that have already been shown to work. Alarmists who expect neuroscience to help marketers develop “super-ads” that manipulate consumers into purchasing things they don’t need overlook the fact that marketers have been experimenting with ad content and techniques for a century. Some of their output may have included a few “super-ads,” but these had nothing to do with neuroscience. A more likely benefit from using neuroscience in marketing is to weed out unproductive ads earlier in the process, ultimately making marketing expenditures more productive. So, we may not have advanced the state of the art in marketing much today, but at least we’ve explained one aspect of comedy. Next time you sit down to watch a Seinfeld rerun, or are sitting in your local comedy club, pay attention and see if you can detect your progression into laughing. Of course, focusing on your premotor cortical region may take some of the humor out of the situation… […]

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