Imagine that you are a woman, sitting alone in a bar. A young attractive man at a table next to you is joking with his friends and making them laugh. After a few minutes his friends leave and he approaches you, asking for your telephone number so he can take you on a date at a later time. Would you be persuaded by him? And what if the guy had been laughing at his friends' jokes but not telling any himself?
This is exactly what 60 young women (ages 20-26) had to decide in a clever study conducted by Nicolas Guéguen. Guéguen is a French researcher who does great ecologically valid experiments on various topics. Most research done in the social sciences is conducted in laboratory settings where people have to fill out questionnaires about how they would act in different situations. This leads to some biases, and that is why testing real behaviors in real situations is important for understanding the true nature of people.
Guéguen wanted to test whether humor enhances mate desirability based on the same evolutionary theory I discussed in my previous post. There is mounting evidence that a sense of humor is a very desirable trait when choosing a mate, and more so for women, but relatively few studies have looked at women's reactions to a man with a great sense of humor approaching them.
So, did women find the humorous man more attractive? Yes, they did. In fact, women were three times more likely to give their phone number to the confederate who told the jokes, compared to the confederate who did not. The humorous men were also considered more attractive, intelligent, funny and sociable, although only the latter two were statistically significant differences.
The effect of a great sense of humor on women's attractions might be partially explained by the fact that funny people are considered to be more social and more intelligent, things that women seek in a mate, but all other things being equal, funny men seem to attract more women.
What about the courtship behaviors of women? Can humor help women attract men? Generally, physical beauty would be the most important factor that would drive a man to initiate contact with a woman. However, not all is lost. Smiling is one of the most important signals that women can direct at men to show their interest. Studies in the past showed, for example, that the distance between a man and a woman in an elevator decreases if the woman enters the elevator smiling.
Guéguen did another study where an average-looking female confederate went into a bar and made eye contact with a guy sitting alone. In half of the cases she smiled towards him, and in the other half she didn't (the decision whether to smile or not was random). One hundred men participated in this study. When the woman smiled, the number of men who approached her was 5 times more compared to the men she didn't smile at (11 vs. 2 men). Even if the men did not approach the woman, the men who got a smile glanced at the woman for 7 seconds as opposed to only 2 seconds when she did not smile at them.
So it seems pretty clear that all a woman has to do to increase her attractiveness is to smile at a man, while men have to work hard trying to impress women with jokes. These studies give support to what we might expect based on sexual selection theory (see previous post for the details).