The late Maya Angelou shared this tidbit of advice: “Don't trust people who don't laugh.” Gaining someone’s trust begins only when you appear more trustworthy, but like Angelou stated, science suggests laughter may be the way into the circle of trust. According to a recent study published in the journal Human Nature, the simple act of laughing can influence people’s willingness to disclose personal information about themselves.

Laughter can be a powerful tool in interpersonal relationships. The act of sharing the pleasure of humor creates a sense of intimacy and a bond between two people. Laughing creates a positive connection that can be a buffer against stress and disagreements in any relationship.

Sharing a laugh also creates the feeling of playfulness that can prime someone to smile and join the fun. A 2012 study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences found laughter actually triggers endorphin activity via the muscular exertions involved when producing the “ha ha ha” sound. Endorphins are known for their feel-good effect, which makes individuals more relaxed about what they communicate, including their secrets.

Alan Gray, lead author of the study at the University College London in the UK and his colleagues sought to determine if laughter can temporarily influence the laugher’s willingness to reveal personal information like secrets. The researchers recruited 122 undergraduates, split them into groups of four, and had them watch one of three clips, including a stand-up comedy routine by Michael McIntyre, another straightforward golf instruction video, and the third a pleasant nature excerpt from the "Jungles" episode of the BBC's Planet Earth series. The students were required to watch the 10-minute clips together, but without chatting to one another.

These clips were meant to induce laughter, a pleasant mood, or nothing at all, like the “how to play golf” clip serving as the control condition. After the video, the students were instructed to write a little bio introducing themselves to another member of the group. The researchers would use the bio to determine the effect the clips had on the participants' willingness to self-disclose.

The findings revealed laughter is actually the social lubricant that bonds people together when it comes to forming new relationships. Those who watched the comedy video shared more personal details compared to the good mood and neutral mood groups. In comparison, both of the other groups were more likely to share details that were relatively dull and did not reveal a plethora of information about themselves.

"This seems to be in line with the notion that laughter is linked specifically to fostering behaviors that encourage relationship development, since observer ratings of disclosure may be more important for relationship development than how much one feels one is disclosing," Gray said in the press release. "These results suggest that laughter should be a serious topic for those interested in the development of social relationships." This suggests laughter can serve as a shortcut to forming new relationships.

This study correlates with the findings of a previous 2010 study published in the journal Small Group Research, which found laughter can play key roles in group communication and group dynamics, even when there’s nothing funny going on. The role of laughter in jury deliberations during a capital murder case was analyzed in the 2010 study. The findings revealed laughter does matter, even when it’s a serious group task. For example, the jury was unclear on whether a sentence related to one of the charges was for 30 days or 30 years, which led to confusion and laughter. This allowed the jurors to release some tension while allowing them to acknowledge they made an error, and move on as the error was corrected.

Laughter is not only be the best medicine, it may be the best way to make new friends and share secrets, too.

Sources: Gray, AW, Dunbar RI, Parkinson B. Laughter’s Influence on the Intimacy of Self-Disclosure. Human Nature. 2015.

Baron R, Barra V, Dunbar RIM et al. Social laughter is correlated with an elevated pain threshold. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 2012.

Beck SJ and Keyton J. Examining Laughter Functionality in Jury Deliberations. Small Group Research. 2010.