Babies learn humour from their parents

Six-month-old babies pay close attention to parents’ reactions to work out whether an unusual event is funny or not, new research suggests.

The study, presented at the Developmental Section conference this week was carried out by Dr. Gina Mireault of Johnson State College and Dr. John Sparrow at the University of New Hampshire – Manchester (USA) and explored whether 6-month-olds look to their parents for emotional guidance during absurd events, a phenomenon known as “social referencing”.

30 babies were studied in their homes at 6 months and 12 months of age. Each baby watched their parent react naturally to two ordinary events (being read a picture book and being shown a small red foam ball).  The events were then changed so that they became absurd:  The open picture book was bounced on the researcher’s head while she said, “Zoop! Zoop!” and the foam ball was placed on the researcher’s nose while she poked it and said, “Beep! Beep!”  During these odd events parents were instructed to either stare at the researcher with an expressionless face or to point and and laugh at her. The events were videoed so that babies responses could later be coded.

The study found that, although 6-month-old babies stared longer at the absurd events (showing that these were unfamiliar to them), their reactions to the events did not depend on their parents’ reactions. However, babies watched their parents closely when they laughed. The combination of paying close attention to absurd events and to others laughing at those events might explain how babies develop the sophisticated sense of humour they possess at 12 months. By their first birthdays, babies laughed at the absurd events, even when their parents remained expressionless. 

Dr. Mireault said, “Humour might seem like a frivolous topic, but it provides a vehicle for understanding infant development, in this case the development of social referencing. This study shows that 6-month-olds pay attention to ‘unsolicited emotional advice’ from parents during ambiguous situations that might be funny. Our findings suggest that 6-month-olds are starting to see parents as a source of emotional information, and this is likely to be an important step on the way to being able to obtain emotional advice from parents when this is needed, which we know babies do at 8 months. By 12 months, babies seem to have had just enough life experience to make up their own minds – at least about what is absurdly funny.”

The study has been reported in The Daily Telegraph and received extensive coverage in Germany.