People like to laugh - even in jury deliberations during a capital murder case!
A new study from North Carolina State University examined the role of laughter in group dynamics and communication - as distinct from humor. Apparently going for the least-amusing of all possible scenarios, they studied the transcripts from the jury room of the 2004 Ohio trial of Mark Ducic, "a white male charged with two murders and 30 additional counts, largely related to drug violations." This is not the first time the jurors' deliberations have been the subject of public scrutiny: the case was followed by ABC news.
What, doesn't sound hilarious? It wasn't - which makes it the perfect subject for such a study. While laughter was used as a bonding mechanism, the findings weren't exactly humor-related.
The researchers learned that laughter could be used as a tool, intentionally and strategically, to control communication and affect group dynamics. For example, one juror was very vocal and made it clear early in the case that she was opposed to the death penalty. In one instance, when that juror agreed with other jury members, one of the other members said "She's so smart," resulting in laughter from other members of the group. "That had the effect of further distancing her from the rest of the jury," Keyton says."When juries form, they don't know each other," Keyton says. "So part of the jury process is to create relationships within the group – for example, figuring out who thinks like me, who will have the same position I have. There are power dynamics at play."
While we think of laughing as a happy bonding experience, this is another kind of bonding entirely: laughter as exclusion mechanism. No shock when you think about playground dynamics. There were also instances of laughter used to break tension - necessary impulse in tense situations. In the end, the jury in this well-publicized case sentenced Ducic to two consecutive life sentences; no laughing matter indeed.