For Gina Mireault, research is still a laughing matter

There’s likely nothing funnier to witness than a baby laughing.
Of course, if you are Dr. Gina Mireault, professor of psychology at Northern Vermont University-Johnson, you are also probably wondering what is making the baby laugh, and why.
Mireault has long been known for her work in the developmental psychology field for her study of infant humor responses. In one of her most recently published studies, Mireault and her colleague Dr. Vasudevi Reddy of the University of Portsmouth, UK, looked at the different responses that infants have to incongruity.
To begin understanding the work that was conducted, the definition of incongruity as it pertains to Mireault’s work is important.
“Let’s begin with the meaning of the word incongruity, which refers to a disharmony, discordance, or inconsistency between two juxtaposed events or stimuli,” reads a line in the academic article that Mireault and Reddy published online on Sept. 27.
The key here is that infants have two distinctive methods of reacting to incongruity: looking and smiling. According to Mireault and Reddy’s article, looking comes from stimuli that is deemed as magical or inexplicable, and smiling comes from incongruous events that involve humor. Think of the difference between a magic trick and a large man with a high-pitched voice. Both are incongruous but fit into different categories of responses.
Mireault’s most recent investigation into infant responses endeavors to investigate the reasons behind the diverse reactions and to attempt to bring together the two different research camps who often are drawing radically different conclusions from their work. When it comes to this topic, most researchers investigate only one of the reactions and not the other.
What Mireault and Reddy point out is that these diverse reactions depend on context. An incongruous event that scares someone or makes them sad or angry will elicit a different result than one that is seen as funny.
The context of the environment in which the incongruity takes place also plays a key role in how a person, or in this case, an infant, may react to the presented stimulus.
There is a catch, however, which is that infants’ reactions don’t always match the category of incongruity that they are experiencing. Because humor incongruities are based in the violation of social expectations and magical incongruities come from the impossibility of physics, shouldn’t the two responses be distinct?
Not always. There are cases where mothers were asked to sing to their infants without making any noise or gestures. The babies’ reactions were typically to look confused and remain still, responses that are usually associated with a magical incongruity. However, what the mother was doing was not physically impossible, so the response defied the category that it normally would be in.
With so many different factors potentially responsible for infant behavior towards incongruity, Mireault made the case that the two branches of study should work together to form a more comprehensive picture of how infants experience the world.
This will help explain why incongruity is less strictly tied to the type and more likely linked to the context and the environment in which it occurs.
Still, with this study published, Mireault hasn’t stopped producing research material. Currently, she has two other papers under review and has been invited to write a chapter about humor development in the first year of life for the Oxford University Press. Evidently, studying baby humor and reactions is more than child’s play.