Nervous Laughter, Tears of Joy

In Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience experiments, the subjects, called “teachers,” were instructed to shock the “learners” for every wrong answer. The learners, confederates in the study, were not actually shocked, of course, but the teachers believed they were–and they even heard faked cries of pain to add authenticity. Most of the subjects showed signs of distress, as one would expect, and some were extremely agitated. But it’s said that some of the subjects laughed when they heard the screams.

We call this nervous laughter–incongruous emotional displays like chuckling uncontrollably at a funeral or some other somber or upsetting event. Everyone has witnessed or experienced such discordant expressions, though we’re probably more familiar with incongruous negative displays–crying at a wedding, growling at the sight of a newborn baby, screaming in the presence of a teen idol.

Are these inappropriate emotional expressions simply embarrassing aberrations? What psychological purpose could they serve? Yale University psychological scientist Oriana Aragon and her colleagues have been studying this phenomenon in the laboratory, and they suspect that such displays–as uncomfortable as they can be–might actually play an important role in overall emotional regulation. That is, when we are at risk of being overwhelmed by our emotions–either positive or negative–expressing —> Read More Here


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