Nervous Laughter, Tears of Joy

November 6, 2014 6:26 PM

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In Stanley Milgram's famous obedience experiments, the subjects, called "teachers," were instructed to shock the "learners" for every wrong answer. The learners, confederates in the study, were not actually shocked, of course, but the teachers believed they were--and they even heard faked cries of pain to add authenticity. Most of the subjects showed signs of distress, as one would expect, and some were extremely agitated. But it's said that some of the subjects laughed when they heard the screams.

We call this nervous laughter--incongruous emotional displays like chuckling uncontrollably at a funeral or some other somber or upsetting event. Everyone has witnessed or experienced such discordant expressions, though we're probably more familiar with incongruous negative displays--crying at a wed...

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