Even during movies that aren’t traditionally funny, like Precious, Titanic, or My Sister’s Keeper, there always seems to be at least one person laughing. Though people who laugh during sad movies may seem crazy, UBC Psychology Prof Jessica Tracy says this phenomenon and other forms of ‘emotion regulation’ are actually normal.
Our society is well known for its blatant escapism; in this vein the majority of us don’t go to a movie to feel painful emotions. Despite this many people do get caught up in what’s happening on screen and feel the intended emotions while others appear not to. This makes the theatre one of the easiest places to see emotion regulation, something that is apparently so built into our society it’s often difficult to witness.
“When we’re about to experience an emotion that is painful to experience, one of the things we sometimes do is automatically regulate it,” says Professor Tracy. “We basically try not to experience it. And this usually isn’t conscious.” So in the movie theatre no one forces themselves to laugh to avoid that sad, twisting emotion they ‘should’ be feeling, but some people do this as an unconscious psychological process. In this way, people laughing through Titanic or more recent movies like Precious could be affected just as strongly by the subject matter as those who are bawling, it’s just expressed differently.
The process of regulating uncomfortable emotions (as a completely unconscious habit) isn’t restricted to laughing during sad movies. Emotion regulation is a relatively recent field of study, and many child psychologists believe that it’s something we start doing at a very young age. Dr. Tracy’s research isn’t directly concerned with emotion regulation, but her focus on self-conscious emotions like shame and pride has led her to the conclusion that while this ability to alter our emotions is instinctual, what’s learned is the emotions our culture suppresses.
In many East Asian cultures, for example, shame is part of the fabric of society. So while feeling shame isn’t a positive thing, in having done something wrong feeling shame about it also brings a feeling of connection to the community. In contrast, in our society we expect people to be happy all of the time, so there’s no place for these emotions, says Professor Tracy. “There’s no kind of welcome environment where you can go and tell your best friend or partner that you’re ashamed of yourself.”
It’s fairly common knowledge that repressing our emotions can cause us problems. “Psychologists have talked about it since Freud,” says Professor Tracy, “but now there’s actually evidence for it.” But does regulation have the same effects as repression, and how much control do we really have over what we’re feeling? At any rate, there’s no reason to glare at the person next to you laughing while the ship sinks. They might be feeling worse about it than you are.