Babies use vocal cues to help them identify jokes

Research has shown babies use vocal cues to identify jokes

NEW research from the University of Stirling suggests parents adapt their voices when they are joking and babies expect to see jokes when they hear these voices paired with laughter.

The study, carried out by Dr Elena Hoicka and Merideth Gattis from Cardiff University, asked 41 parents to read a book to their 19 to 24-month-old toddlers.

Dr Hoicka explained: “By speaking higher, louder and slower, parents made the sentences easier for the babies to understand, which might be helpful as jokes contain some very odd ideas. However, the parents didn’t want their babies to believe their jokes, so when joking the tone of their voice made the story sound uncertain, like they didn’t really believe what they were saying.”

During the research, half of the parents read their baby a caring-themed book with sentences like, ‘Baby loves mummy’s cuddle’, accompanied by a picture of a mother cuddling her baby while being fed a bottle. The other half read a funny book with sentences such as ‘Mummy drinks baby’s bottle’ accompanied by an illustration of a mother drinking from the baby’s bottle.

A follow-up study by Dr Hoicka and Professor Su-hua Wang at the University of California, discovered that 15-month-old babies used vocal cues to figure out when someone was going to be funny.

The babies who heard the caring voice looked longer when watching the funny scenario than the caring or normal action. This suggested that the babies were surprised by the strange actions. However, when the babies heard a funny voice they looked longer at the normal versus the funny action. This suggests that babies were actually more surprised by the normal action than the funny action

The research involved one group of babies listening to someone coo ‘awww’ and speak in a sweet, caring voice and then either view them stroking a toy cat or carry out a funny action. The other half of the babies heard someone laugh and speak in a funny voice and then carry out the same actions. .

Dr Hoicka said: “This tells us that when babies hear sweet, normal voices, they expect to see sweet, normal actions. When they hear funny voices, they expect to see funny actions. Babies are sensitive to vocal cues and can use them to look out for jokes.”

She added that the study will be very useful for understanding the importance of humour in the development of children: “It helps to create social bonds, deal with stress, and can even benefit education. We know very little about how humour develops from birth so this study helps answer that question.”

“The study also highlights how parent-child interactions are important – not only for children’s humour development, but for children’s understanding of other people’s minds.”