Humor has always been subjective. Where some people prefer Jim Carrey’s physical comedy, others may prefer Albert Brooks’ dry approach.
Babies are not particularly subtle, of course. Making silly faces, tickling their feet, or pretending you’ve disappeared into an endless loop of time lag – also known as peek-a-boo – are all ways to make tiny people laugh. But why exactly are they laughing? Is it because they think their parents are funny or is it a reflex? Do they process humor or is it just a way of socializing? Is baby laughing a way of saying, “Please keep taking care of me”
We asked several babies and got no answers. (In many cases, a loaded diaper ended the interview prematurely.) Fortunately, a number of researchers have explored the subject of what deeply infants find funny. “Almost all babies laugh by the time they’re 4 months old,” Gina Mireault, professor of psychology in the behavioral science department at Northern Vermont University, told Mental Floss.
But Mireault adds that, in both adults and babies, “one of the biggest misconceptions about humor is that it doesn’t have to have anything to do with something being funny.”
From smiling to laughing
Early in life, babies are nonverbal – they babble and coo incoherent nonsense. Smiling, laughing and crying are therefore crucial to interacting with the rest of the world. You probably won’t catch a baby laughing alone. “It’s a social answer,” says Mireault. “The required ingredient is someone else.”
Babies usually start smiling by 6 to 12 weeks of age. After 3 to 4 months, babies laugh at actions that involve physical stimulation, such as tickling, raspberries, or hitting their caregiver’s knee. (In a 2014 study by developmental psychologist Caspar Addyman at Goldsmiths InfantLab at the University of London, parents reported that tickling was the best way to make their child laugh.) By 5 to 6 months, they’ve learned enough about the world around them to understand the basic idea of humor – a distortion of reality. Once they see the appearance of normal human behavior, they giggle at big eyes, blown cheeks, and high-pitched voices.
“It’s usually about behavior that my colleagues have described as ‘clowning’,” says Mireault. “It could be a huge hat, a big bow tie, unusual voices, or a fun walk.” In watching these social rule violations, babies are amused because they have expectations about normal human behavior. Pretending to be a kangaroo is not what they expect.
“Surprise is one of the key elements of humor,” says Mireault. “There are two theories. One is called the Arousal Safety Hypothesis and another is called the Benign Violation Theory. They are the same. The idea is that humor that includes a surprise is perceived as not threatening. “
If you give your child a stuffed animal, the stuffed animal will be waiting for them. If you suddenly toss it on the floor, this new development is likely to make you laugh. The key is familiarity and a sense of playfulness. A smiling adult tossing it aside will be fun. A stranger who throws it angrily against a wall will not. Even Charles Darwin noted this and wrote in his 1872 work: The expression of feelings in humans and animalsTickling by a stranger would cause a child to “scream in fear.”
There are exceptions. In London, children’s theater producers Sarah Argent and Kevin Lewis, with the support of Caspar Addyman and research by the InfantLab, have staged several plays aimed at a baby demographics from 6 months. Plays like Out of the blue and Shake, rattle and roll expected a baby’s natural caution towards strangers. Actress Maisie Whitehead “met” the babies at the beginning of Shake, rattle and rolland sang to them to get them used to their presence. During the show, Whitehead delighted the babies, pretending to “jiggle”, lose and regain their balance.
What stood out to Lewis was the idea that a baby’s laughter can be a method of control. “There is a feeling that laughter is a tool of power,” Lewis tells Mental Floss. ‘When I laugh, the tall person is doing that thing or action again. I can get her to do it over and over and keep enjoying myself over and over and I’m in control! “Babies use some form of manipulation when they laugh.
Why babies love peek-a-boo
Babies can also have intentions. If you pretend to drop something and say, “ha ha,” the baby will likely laugh. But if you say “uh-oh” and appear concerned, the baby will treat it like a serious event. Dropping objects with an exaggerated response was indeed a highlight of Argent’s productions that made babies giggle.
There is an expiration date for such actions, as babies will quickly learn the unexpected action – throwing the stuffed animal – that can now be expected. Or as Mireault puts it: “Babies are not stupid. You won’t find it infinitely fun. “
The more babies learn about the world, the more caregivers can undermine their expectations. But one misunderstanding leads parents to come closest to guaranteed laughter without resorting to the cheap trick of tickling: peek-a-boo.
There are several reasons why it works. One relates to what the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget called object permanence, or the idea that something that is out of sight still exists.
For a baby, the existence of a physical object depends on whether it is visible. “If you hide something from a 6-month-old baby, like car keys, by covering it up, the baby won’t be looking for you,” says Mireault. The idea that the keys have been hidden is not a concept that they can understand.
The same goes for faces. When a parent covers their face with their hands, the sudden reappearance is a delightful surprise. Mireault adds, “When you come back up it’s like ‘Holy Smoke, where are you from?'”
Peek-a-boo is also baby treat because it involves that distortion of reality – big eyes and silly faces. However, after 8 or 9 months, babies have realized object durability. If a parent leaves the room, the baby can get upset. They know that the adult is in another room instead of just disappearing from existence for a short time.
That doesn’t mean Peek-a-Boo is no longer effective. They can be amused when they meet the expectation – that their parents will reappear – or go into hiding. Alternatively, a baby can laugh, but as they get older they may become less righteous. “Babies can laugh wrong at 6 months,” says Mireault. “You can laugh to get attention.” They start babbling and get voice controls and use voluntary laughter. For example, when someone says, “Ha, ha, ha” and it doesn’t sound very real. It’s just a nice social gesture. “
It’s disturbing to think that an adult who is considered a comic book genius by a baby at 4 months old can be a Vegas hack after 6 months and only deserve sympathy chuckles. Through the laugh, Mireault says, “The kid says, ‘Look, this isn’t so fun anymore, but I don’t want to stop playing, so think of something else.'”
Sense of humor from babies
As babies age into toddlerhood, other types of humor begin to make sense. At 7 to 9 months of age, they find humor in contradictions. Put a hat on a dog and watch them collapse. At 12 months old, they might see a mug and call it a spoon, or laugh at an adult doing the same thing.
But the real milestone in a baby’s sense of humor can come when trying to make others laugh. After 5 months, sufficient motor controls have been set up so babies can start holding up their own smelly feet instead of waiting for a parent to do so. At 8 months old, they will annoy others. “It shows that they understand that other people can be betrayed,” says Mireault. “They offer something like car keys and when you reach for them they pull them away.”
It’s more than just humor. It shows a theory of mind or the idea that other people have different thoughts, beliefs, and expectations. Funny faces may seem simple, but humor is a cognitive puzzle that helps babies grow up – and eventually keep their car keys.