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The proper APA Style reference for this manuscript is:
COLE, I. T. (2006). The Effects of Canned Laughter on Bystander Apathy. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 9. Available online at http://www.webclearinghouse.net/volume/. Retrieved December 9, 2023 .

The Effects of Canned Laughter on Bystander Apathy

Sponsored by: Brian Cronk (cronk@missouriwestern.edu)
The differences in ones reaction to a distressful situation with and without the presence of a laugh track were compared. It was hypothesized that canned laughter will deter a person from helping the one in need. The presence of bystander apathy was measured by the type of response each participant exerted during the distressful situation. The participants who came over to see if I was all right displayed little or no bystander apathy, while the participants who did not come over and kept to themselves showed a significant amount of bystander apathy. This study was conducted to see if canned laughter had any effect on bystander apathy during a stressful situation and according to the results, it does. The results indicated that the group of subjects who experienced the stressful situation without the laugh track was more likely to help out, proving that they had less bystander apathy. While the group in a stressful situation, with a laugh track displayed a significant amount of bystander apathy by not coming to see if I was all right. The findings are in agreement to the hypothesis of this experiment, which states that, the participants who experience canned laughter during an emergency situation will not take it as a serious event thus, displaying bystander apathy. This also supports the theory that people wait on others to help the one in need instead of helping themselves. This is another study that shows the influence we have on one another, even in times of need.

The avoidance of helping people in need, now known as bystander apathy, has always been a mystery. We have always been taught that helping one in need is the right thing to do. So why, in some cases, do we intervene and in other cases we do not. Interest of this topic really started to peak after the Kitty Genovese murder where several people could hear and see her at the time it occurred. What is even stranger is that it took a half an hour for her to die and yet, no one did anything to aide her. Since then, researchers have performed many tests to see what might actually cause this seemingly contradicting behavior. It is plain to see today that there are many variables that delay or prevent ones willingness to help, variables that cause bystander apathy. It has been suggested that the evidence concerning bystander behavior indicates two factors that are important in influencing the likelihood of intervention. The first and perhaps best known factor is the presence of other bystanders in a helping context. A second factor that has emerged as a key basis of intervention is emotionality (Levine & Thompson, 2004). One of these variables that might cause an effect on bystander apathy is canned laughter. It has been stated that previous research suggests that hearing others laugh can influence an audience (Cialdini, 1993, as cited in Both et al., 2005). This may suggest that laughter can have effects on a person even when they are in danger, or even in painful situations. Empirical research (Welsenberg, Tepper, & Schwarzwald, 1995, as cited in Burroughs et al., 2001) has provided some support for popular beliefs, demonstrating that laughter resulting from exposure to a humorous stimulus increases pain tolerance. People tend to laugh to make an awkward situation more comfortable. The interaction and the relationship between the one who needs help and the one who might offer help is also important to look at. Social interaction between the victim and bystander may increase helping by creating a social bond strengthening the bystander’s concern for the victim (Goltz & Harrell, 1980). The more comfortable people are with each other, the more likely they are willing to help. Would laughter, during a dangerous situation, somehow make things more or less comfortable in a situation? It has been stated (Bain et al., 2005) that people typically evaluate their in-groups more favorable than out-groups and themselves more favorably than others. It would be interesting to see if laughter causes one to view someone else less favorably than themselves initially. It is clear to see that laughter is going to have somewhat of an effect on a person in bystander intervention. Will it encourage or prevent one to help or intervene is the question that I plan on shedding some light on. No matter the answer, Both (2005) suggests that the awareness of laughter may have changed one’s thinking to a greater degree, their emotional response, when no laughter was heard. The purpose of this study is to find the results that laughter has on a bystander by incorporating a laugh track in a made-up emergency situation and comparing those results to a made-up emergency situation without a laugh track. I hope this experiment provides some clarity on what laughter does to bystander apathy. I also hope, by testing this, that it sparks other ideas of what may cause bystander apathy which is such a complex behavior. Knowing more about what causes this will help create a better awareness of bystander apathy. As best summed up by Benjamin Franklin, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall hang separately.”


I had twenty undergraduate university students participate in my study. I found those students in lower level psychology classes, specifically psychology 101, at a medium-sized university in northwest Missouri. Each student was given extra-credit for their time.

Each student received a questionnaire to fill out while they were in a cubicle provided by the psychology department. A sound clip of something crashing and me yelling was used while they filled out the questionnaire. I used a noise clip from which I created that was played and recorded on a White-Westinghouse Radio Cassette Recorder, model WPS-7038. Half the time I played a laugh track on a Durabrand CD Player, model CD-1095 which I found off a CD that I had as well. I then recorded the results on a chart I had made.

Every subject was asked to be seated in one of the four cubicles to fill out a questionnaire (that involved personality). While they were filling out the questionnaire I stepped outside to give them time to fill it out. In the process, I went to a nearby room to play the sound clip of a loud crash and me yelling loudly enough for the participants to hear it. Upon hearing this noise, participants either came to the room to see what was going on or stayed in the room and kept filling out the questionnaire. Ten participants went through this process without experiencing a laugh track. The other ten went through the same process as the other ten did with the exception that they heard laughter coming from the same room they heard the loud crash and yelling.

A chi-square test of independence was calculated comparing the presence of a laugh track to that without a laugh track to see if it influenced one to help. A significant interaction was found (X2(1) = 5.05, p = .025). Participants who did not experience a laugh track were more likely to help (80%) than those who did (30%). See figure one for further explanations.

The data present are congruent with the hypothesis that was presented before the experiment was conducted. The hypothesis proposed that canned laughter would prevent one from helping another in need and the results confirmed that statement. This adds to the idea that the presence of laughter influences ones behavior; whether that is altering an awkward situation, generating more people to laugh, or increasing bystander apathy. It has been discussed that hearing others laugh can influence an audience (Cialdini, 1993, as cited in Both et al., 2005). Once more, is that there is proof that a key basis of intervention is emotionality (Levine & Thompson, 2004). When one experiences laughter, their level of emotionality is somewhat lowered during a situation that may be dangerous. There are, however, several limitations to this study. The recording of the huge crash was played on a cassette player which made the quality of the sound very poor. Some people could tell that it was a recording of a crash and did not take it as a serious problem. I found this out when I did my debriefing with each participant. Those that did not help defended themselves by saying that the noise sounded like a recording or thought it was to distract them when they filled out the questionnaire. My yelling was still convincing yet, the crashing noise was not. Also, the laugh track was not as realistic as I had imagined. Many people thought that it was just another method of distracting them while taking the questionnaire. I was trying to find a laugh track that swayed their decision on whether they should help or not. By doing so, I might have chosen one that was too satirical for this condition. Another flaw might have been my performance when yelling. I had to make a convincing painful scream for each of the twenty participants when they came in. After doing it twenty times one gets fatigued and it might not have sounded as convincing towards the last few participants. Comparing this study to other conclusions found, I did expect the results that transpired. Laughter seems to discourage one from helping another in need. This may stir some interest for social psychologists. I hope that others in the social science field develop this type of study further to discover specific reasons as to why laughter increases bystander apathy.

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Levine, M., & Thompson, K. (2004). Identity, place, and bystander intervention: Social

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Submitted 12/7/2006 12:40:21 PM
Last Edited 12/7/2006 1:04:17 PM
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