Client Laughter, Not a Laughing Matter: The Interpersonal Role of Client Laughter in Psychotherapy

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The purpose of this study was to investigate the presence of 5 characteristics (cheerfulness, politeness, reflectiveness, nervousness, and contemptuousness) in client laughter, and to examine the relationship between the presence of these 5 laughter characteristics and client attachment styles as observed in psychotherapy. The primary investigator, and 6 undergraduate students coded 813 laughter episodes, which were nested within 33 clients, nested under 16 therapists, in one psychotherapy clinic. Judges rated the intensity of each laughter episode in terms of the presence of these 5 laughter characteristics. Initial client attachment style was measured using a self-report measure. Laughter occurred on average, in 9 out of 10 sessions, and was rated highest on politeness and reflectiveness, followed by cheerfulness and nervousness, and was rated lowest on contemptuous. Initial attachment style of the clients influenced the characteristic observed in client laughter, throughout therapy. As theorized by Nelson (2012) clients seemed to use laughing to both connect and disconnect with the therapist. Implications for practice and research are discussed.