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What Chewbacca Mom Taught Us about the Psychology of Laughter

You’re going to laugh at this, but Candace “Chewbacca Mom” Payne represents the apotheosis of all humanity. Her masked performance on Facebook Live in May 2016 that triggered fits of uncontrollable laughter around the globe, was the best thing ever.

Really, it’s true. Think about it. When else in human history have we possessed the means to share information so fast, so far? And when else have so many humans used that power for such pure, belly-laugh-inducing good?

It was all about that laugh (and Star Wars). If you’ve seen the Texas mom don the Wookie mask she purchased at Kohl’s and belt out that hearty laugh on camera, you know. Of course you’ve watched it – by late summer, it had been viewed more than 160 million times and shared nearly 3.4 million times (both records for Facebook Live videos).

Mind you, those were only the Facebook views and shares. It has been viewed nearly 10 million times on various YouTube channels, and millions more watched as Payne appeared on Good Morning America and many other popular TV programs.

With no marketing plan, no market research, no team of consultants steering her course, Chewbacca Mom entered the popular lexicon and made us all feel better about life for a little while. The power of laughter propelled Payne’s video to viral status.

But why did it happen as it did? And what can Chewbacca Mom teach us about the psychology of laughter and viral social sharing?

Laughter is Contagious

A recent study conducted by neuroscientist Sophie Scott at University College London confirmed what many of us have experienced: Laughter is contagious.

There are caveats, though. In a TED Talk about the science of laughter, Scott explained that laughter is a seminal experience that predates the use of language. It is an emotional response found in most mammals, including rats.

In fact, while laughter is typically associated with humor, it has more to do with the ancient roots of socialization and fraternization than with comedy.

Babies 3 to 4 months old can’t talk, but they can laugh. Our prehistoric ancestors laughed when a life-threatening situation was diffused.

So, why do we laugh now?

Laughter is associated with tickling, play, humor and social interactions. There are two kinds of laughter:

  • Involuntary – This is the kind of laughter we experience when we guffaw at a joke or, as in the case of the Chewbacca Mom video, we witness someone else laughing involuntarily. Some people also laugh as a response to extreme stress. Involuntary laughter is characterized by unique noises produced when the intercostal muscles of the rib cage contract, forcing air from the lungs in rapid repetition. The tear ducts are activated and the muscles of the face produce a smile or grimace.
  • Social (or posed) – This kind of laughter takes place in social settings and is usually done voluntarily. It is a non-verbal tool, a chuckle or a quiet snort, that is meant to set the minds of those in our immediate social sphere at ease or to demonstrate disdain. Think of the villain who laughs maniacally while revealing her diabolical scheme, or the guest at a cocktail party who hears an obscure witticism and laughs to gain acceptance, even if he doesn’t get the joke.

The laughter elicited by viewing the Chewbacca Mom video is involuntary. We witness Payne’s delight, and it triggers empathetic physiological responses. We smile, we feel connected to her happiness – and then we laugh along with her.

Why Users Shared Chewbacca Mom’s Video

Payne did not seek Internet fame. Her decision to share her video on Facebook Live as she sat in her car was a spur-of-the-moment thing, a product of pure delight after an enjoyable afternoon shopping trip.

When she affixed her smartphone to its base and hit record, she did not anticipate that her life would change. All she wanted to do was use social media to let her friends and family members share in the fun. So they shared. And their friends shared. And theirs. The recorded version of the Chewbacca Mom video flashed around the world, delivering laughter to every corner of the globe like a digital Santa’s sleigh.

It struck a chord with users everywhere because of its powerful emotional appeal. Research has shown that Internet users are motivated to share content when they are moved by emotion – joy, awe, anger, etc. – and it is a human compulsion to want to enable others to experience that same feeling.

Emotions carry less impact when they are experienced in a vacuum. That’s one reason why people are 30 times less likely to laugh when they are alone. It also is one reason why people share content on social media, especially content that elicits “positive” feelings of warmth and/or happiness.

Chewbacca Mom demonstrated two truths: laugh, and the world laughs with you. Then, the world shares it on social media.

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