It’s no joke: toy company hires JSC’s infant humor specialist



Gina Mireault in the classroom

Gina Mireault is a professor in JSC’s behavioral sciences department. Her research is called the “laughing baby study,” but no one’s laughing about it: her research has been featured on PBS, WebMD, CNN and Salon, and was referenced in Hope Edelman’s best-seller “Motherless Daughters.”
Now there’s a new addition to her resume.

How did you first get involved with studying infant humor?
I became a mom. [Laughs.] So at the time that my kids were little — they’re now both in college — I was studying parental death in childhood. That was important work, and I liked it.
Then, when my son was about three, it just dawned on me. My kids found things funny all on their own, like all kids do. He, in particular, at that age, knew how to make me laugh. That was so surprising to me. It was like he had picked up on these little nuanced inside jokes and he knew when to pull them out. I was very surprised by the level of sophistication — that he knew how to influence my thinking and influence my emotion. It was very cool, so I just thought, “I’ve got to study that.”
I didn’t really know anything about infant humor — I wasn’t studying babies at the time — and I was too busy as a mother of young kids and working full-time to really make a big change.
It wasn’t until my son was in high school and my daughter was in middle school that I had a sabbatical, and that’s when I decided to study humor perception in babies.
Part of this, I will add, was related to another thing I was doing professionally. I am a freelance writer for the American Kennel club, and I write about animal emotions for them.
What I do is take the scientific literature, the psych literature, on animal cognition and emotion, and I report it for them in layman’s terms for their readership. So a lot of the animal literature overlaps with the infant literature because they use similar methodologies.
Since animals and babies can’t talk, the researchers tend to use very similar research designs. I started reading the infant literature because I needed it to understand the animal literature and things came together in ways I wasn’t predicting.

How did you get involved in this consulting job? Did you seek them out or did they seek you out?
They found me. There’s a company called Kids II- they’re an American company, and they’re family-owned, but they’re international.
I was approached by a marketing firm in Texas, who represents the toy company. They were preparing to unveil their new campaign, which is called the “Having A Ball” campaign. They were going to unveil this at a conference called BlogHer, which as it turns out is a huge national conference of all women bloggers. A lot of them are moms, and a lot of them have babies. There are 25,000 people who go to this conference.
They approached me and said that the goal of their campaign is to persuade mothers and fathers to lighten up on all of the things that they’re trying to teach their babies- the alphabet and sign language and so on. These things aren’t problematic, but really they’ve gotten away from the heart of what we know about babies and children and how they learn- which is that most learning comes from play.
They have this slogan for their new line of toys called “Fun comes first” and they were looking for something scientific to support this idea that laughter and fun are important for babies.
So, I guess they did a google search (laughs). There aren’t many people who study laughter in infants- there are only four of us, and three are in the UK, so I was the lucky winner.
So, they approached me, and I was very intrigued by this and I spent some time with a friend’s baby playing with the toys, just to see what they’re all about. Really, the point of my work with them was to advance the science and not to blindly endorse products.
It worked out well for everyone- it was a great platform for me to let my work reach the people who need it: parents.

What toys have you found work best with infants?
Well, there’s not a one-size-fits-all toy for babies. The main thing with infants is that if you want to elicit laughter, you have to have another person there. Laughter is much more about being together than it is about a stimulus. So, toys that work well are toys that require another person involved. The main thing to do is to play the clown, make it be a social game, because that’s what they respond to.

What kind of an impact has this had on your future? Do you think you’ll be doing more consulting jobs?
I hope so! This was really, really interesting. It was so far out of my element. I present at conferences all the time, but it’s usually to an academic audience. So, this was really different.
I had to do twelve or fifteen television and radio interviews live. It was really fun! It was a real Hollywood experience.
It was also really nerve-wracking because I’d have three minutes to get all of the accurate information in. It was a great exercise to have to explain what I do and why I do it in a sound bite.
I would love the opportunity to do this more, because one of the things that is so important to any scientific work is disseminating our work, and making sure we get it out there.
Working with Kids II really allowed me to get my work out to a much bigger audience than it ever would have reached if it just stayed in the halls of science. We’ve talked about me working with them at the level of design.

Will this have any impact on your time at Johnson?
I don’t think so. This was mostly over the summer, but there could be more opportunities in the future! These things just seem to come out of nowhere (laughs).
But I’ll be here, this is where I love to be. It is very grounding, and I get some of my best ideas from my classes, from my students- certainly the students who work on a project. This is very fertile ground for scientific thinking.

Has [working with Kids II] changed your understanding of infant humor at all?
It hasn’t exactly changed my understanding, but I guess it has reminded me the importance of translating your work for an audience who can really benefit from it- which is, in this case, parents.
It’s been a reminder to make your work relevant for the people for whom it’s intended. We do science and stick with our science peeps and communicate with each other, but this work is important to help babies and parents.