CE28 - Cognition, éducation, formation

Roles of humour, laughing and positive emotions on infants’ social learning capacities – EmoLearn

Submission summary

Numerous studies have shown that the use of humour can facilitate learning in adults, through diverse mechanisms such as enhancing attention and motivation, or reducing stress and anxiety. In a recent groundbreaking study, Esseily et al (2015) highlighted a large effect of laughing in a humorous context on 18-month-old infants' social learning capacity. Further work is now required to identify the factor(s) at play and elucidate the psychological and physiological mechanisms underpinning this enhanced social learning in babies. To investigate this issue, the EmoLearn project will combine a variety of behavioural, psychological and physiological data in one to two year old infants exposed to positive vs neutral social contexts. We have organised this project into three work packages:

Work package 1 will test the generalisability of the findings of the study of Esseily et al, 2015. We will test infants’ ability to learn by observation how to solve a variety of different tasks, of various difficulties and at different ages over the second year of life, both in a neutral or a humorous context. In addition to the behavioural measures of performance and of emotional reactions measured in the original study, we will add measures of infants’ temperament and socio-cognitive skills, in order to identify potential characteristics likely to explain inter-individual differences in performance and emotional reactions found in the original study. Furthermore, we will measure infants’ physiological response (skin conductance, heart-rate variability, and body temperature) to the humorous and the neutral contexts to help establishing potential links between infants’ behavioural emotional responses (e.g. laughing, surprise, fussiness), their measured physiological responses (e.g. change in arousal) and their performance at the social learning tasks.

Work package 2 will identify the specific factor(s) likely to influence infants’ observational learning performances in a humorous context: is it humour per se that increases infants’ social learning performance? Or is a more general factor involved, such as surprise, laughter, positive emotions and/or interpersonal affiliation with the demonstrator? To answer these questions, we will conduct a series of short behavioural experiments that vary in the nature and timing of the humorous and social context during the demonstrations.

Finally, Work package 3 aims at identifying the psychological mechanisms underlying the effects on social learning of the factor(s) identified in package 2. We will conduct a series of eye-tracking experiments in neutral and positive contexts to identify the cognitive processes involved, in particular the role that the identified factor(s) may play on infants’ attentional and anticipatory processes during the different types of demonstrations. Ultimately, we will propose a theoretical framework of developmental knowledge acquisition in a social context involving the identified factor(s).

The EmoLearn project is the first to investigate the role and mechanisms of humour and/or positive emotions on early social learning in infancy. It builds on recent evidence that humour production may enhance observational learning of a new tool-use action in infants. It thus promotes, through combining purely behavioural observations with eye-tracking data, socio-cognitive information and physiological measures, a novel experimental approach aiming at integrating all possible factors that can possibly participate in the mechanisms. As such, it paves a new way for approaching an essential concept in education, that of the use of positive emotions in early learning contexts. We believe that this project may lead to a major breakthrough in the understanding of the impact of emotions on early social learning in infancy, but also on emotions and learning in general.

Project coordination


The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.



Help of the ANR 180,703 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: December 2020 - 42 Months

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