Dissertations and Theses

Date of Award


Document Type




First Advisor

Sasha Rudenstine

Second Advisor

Steven Tuber

Third Advisor

Ben Harris


laughter, nonverbal behavior, working alliance, emotion regulation, interactive affect regulation, intersubjective state


Laughter emerges in infancy and reflects mutually aroused and regulated positive affect within the caregiver-infant relationship and repeated cycles of shared, co-regulated positive arousal have been shown to play a critical role in fueling secure attachment bond formation and laying the groundwork for the infant’s capacity for affect regulation (Schore, 2003). Throughout life, laughter continues to function as an attachment behavior with the possibility of promoting interpersonal closeness or creating distance. Attitudes toward the role of laughter in psychotherapy vary among psychodynamically-oriented clinicians and research has mostly focused on the kinds of humor and interventions that provoke laughter rather than attending to the meaning of the behavior itself (Nelson, 2012). The role of joint laughter in the formation of a secure attachment bond in infancy, coupled with growing awareness of how unconscious, nonverbal behavior contributes to the working alliance in psychotherapy, suggest that joint laughter may be implicated in the development and maintenance of a strong working alliance.

In the present study, eight short-term alliance focused psychotherapy treatments were analyzed using both quantitative and qualitative methods, including the coding of videotaped psychotherapy session data and a quantitative self-report measure of the working alliance, with the aim of better understanding the function of joint laughter episodes between patient therapist in psychotherapeutic process and their relationship to the working alliance. Overall, across a wide variety of clinical contexts that routinely involved heightened or tense affect states in the therapy dyad, joint laughter emerged as a means of interactively regulating affect and negotiating proximity in the relationship. The frequency of joint laughter across treatment was also found to be positively associated with the amount of growth in the working alliance from the beginning to the end of treatment and in-depth qualitative case study analysis further suggested a positive relationship between high variation in types of joint laughter episodes and growth in the alliance. Implications for training and supervision are discussed including how the development of a strong working alliance may be supported by encouraging therapists to reflect on their use of playfulness and laughter in session as well as emphasizing attending and attuning to patients’ cues for interactive affect regulation through joint laughter.



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