Note on a Curious Type of Laughter

Sociopathic Laughter?

Lately I’ve been noticing an interesting type of laugh that can be overheard in public. It literally sounds like, “Hahahahaha,” as if the person is mimicking actual laughter. What these people are laughing at and the way they are interacting with the people they are with sets off my sociopath detectors. For instance, recently a man was seated at a restaurant table near me with a woman who seemed to be greatly charmed by him. He seemed very confident. I got the feeling I was overhearing a sociopath who was literally about to charm the woman’s pants off.

Scientists who study laughter separate the actual behavior of laughing from an emotion they call “mirth,” that positive, giddy, feeling of amusement that normally accompanies laughter. But it need not always do so. There are neurological syndromes, for instance, a type of epilepsy which produces what is called a gelastic seizure, in which the patient cannot stop laughing, but reports that he feels no mirth (see here for example). From observing this curious type of laugh it seems to me that the people emitting it are also not experiencing mirth. Not that they are faking–they seem to be feeling positive, and the laughter seems spontaneous. In his characterization of psychopaths, Hervey Cleckley, whose book The Mask of Sanity initiated the modern study of psychopathy and sociopathy, said:

Psychopaths are often witty and sometimes give a superficial impression of that far different and very serious thing, humor. Humor, however, in what may be its full, true sense, they never have.

It would certainly be nice if there were reliable behavioral markers for detecting sociopaths. The current method for diagnosis is a 20-question test, the Psychopathy Checklist, Revised version, but a clever sociopath or psychopath might be able to defeat this.

So my questions to readers are:

Have you ever heard a laugh like this?

What did you notice about what the person was saying and the way he was acting?

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