Environment & Science

Can you tell fake laughter from real? Take this audio quiz (and read about the research)

Laughter like this was the subject of a recent study at UCLA that sought to measure how well we can tell real laughs from fakes.
Laughter like this was the subject of a recent study at UCLA that sought to measure how well we can tell real laughs from fakes.
Richard Hartog/California Watch

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Everyone fakes a laugh once in a while – whether it's smarmy politicians, cheesy gameshow hosts or the suckup at work.

But is that pseudo snickering really fooling anyone?

Turns out it can, but not most of the time, according to new research from UCLA communications professor Greg Bryant in the current issue of the journal “Evolution and Human Behavior.”

He and his assistants took 36 recordings of laughs – half real and half fake – and played them for listeners. Bryant found that people can single out the fakes about two-thirds of the time. That’s because real laughs generally have a higher pitch. They also tend to be louder, longer and faster than a faked laugh. (The quiz below will give you examples.)

That’s not to say that we can’t be fooled once in a while. Bryant’s test subjects did get tricked a full third of the time, and that’s actually a pretty big margin of error in a town where laughter isn’t just a social cue between friends; it’s also a business.

Surely if anyone could ace this test, it’s someone who depends on laughter for his livelihood.

“I think that’s one of the most important things as a comedian to sort of be able to know where the crowd is,” said comedian Kumail Nanjiani. He’s currently on HBO’s “Silicon Valley” and hosts a weekly standup show at Meltdown Comics in Hollywood. He considers himself something of a connoisseur of laughter.

“There’s obviously different levels, like sometimes there’s light titters. Sometimes there’s laughter of recognition. There’s like a big laugh where people clap. Then there’s a laugh where people get the joke late. Then there’s the laugh where they’re so shocked they laughed.”

So discerning a fake laugh should be no problem for Nanjiani, right? He took Bryant’s test and did about as well as everyone else.

Bryant found if he played the samples slowed down, respondents were better able to pick out the real from the fake.

“If you want to see if someone is fake laughing, you just slow it down two and a half times,” Bryant said.

And he asked respondents whether the slow samples were made by humans or an animal.

The idea is that a fake laugh sounds like regular human speech when it’s slowed down, while a real laugh sounds like some kind of animal call:

Bryant said humans share the ability to laugh with many animals like penguins, elephants, dogs, rats, gorillas and orangutans. That’s because laughter evolved as a signal during play behavior to let playmates distinguish rough-housing from aggression.

Bryant said it’s important for people to be able to distinguish real from fake laughter because fake laughter can be used as a tool for manipulation. 

Can you tell? Take the quiz and let us know how you did in the comments below.