Humor Sapiens

The laughing ape and other insights into the nature of funny.

Why Jokes Are Seductive

Why Jokes Are Seductive: sex differences in humor and dating

A good sense of humor is one of the most desirable traits in a mate, especially in the early stages of dating. Women are particularly interested in a man with a sense of humor, or more specifically, someone that will make them laugh. Men on the other hand, want a date that will laugh at their jokes, not an easy task at all, as many humorless men find out the hard way. These different attributes of humor might have strong evolutionary roots, especially in light of sexual selection theory, as I discussed in an earlier post. Choosy women use humor as a sign of intelligence and weed out the less competent. Men use humor to impress women, and the funny ones succeed.

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A new study published recently by Christopher Wilbur and Lorne Campbell uses the same evolutionary logic to test whether men and women differ in their humor preferences. To see what men and women really want, the researchers examined real personal ads from the dating site lavalife.com. This method of analyzing dating ads is widely used in recent years because it allows researcher to look at actual preferences of people looking for a mate in a real-life situations, with real consequences. Just asking for people's preference in the laboratory might yield different results since it is less ecologically valid, and subjects might not disclose their real desires, for various reasons.

The profiles used for this study all came from Canada, with subjects ranging from ages 21-35 (all ads were written in English). In total, 266 profiles were used, half for each sex. The researchers looked at key features of the ads pertaining to humor. Specifically, they focused on how often the person proclaimed to be funny or actually tried to be funny, and how often they requested a partner with a sense of humor. In addition, they recorded what other traits people where looking for in a mate, such as intelligence, warmth, status and physical attractiveness.

Not surprisingly, men were much more inclined to say that they have a great sense of humor and that they can make their potential date laugh. Of course, this does not mean that they actually are funny—many of them probably aren't. Nonetheless, by emphasizing their humor production abilities men acknowledge that humor is a highly desired trait by women looking for a mate. Women on the other hand, were much more likely than men to state that they want a man with a sense of humor. An interesting finding was that people who proclaimed to have a good sense of humor were not the ones that wished they could date someone funny. These attributes are distinct and sex specific.

Regardless of sex, those who thought of themselves as funny and those interested in finding a partner with a good sense of humor were more likely to also value intelligence in a potential mate, implying that the two traits are intertwined. My own research shows that this relationship does exist, and actual humor production is indeed associated with higher intelligence for both sexes.

The current study examined the real intentions of single men and women looking for a date, and the different functions humor plays in the mating game. Men try to advertise that they have a good sense of humor and women look to evaluate this humor. But another question lingers: Is there a real relationship between actual manifestation of humor and romantic choices? If women are the ones who are keen for a humorous guy, we expect that funny ads will increase their attraction to that man. To test this, the researchers created fictitious online dating ads that either contained a "one liner" joke at the start of the ad, or not. One hundred fourteen college participants (73 women, 41 men) were then asked to evaluate the ad on various personality dimensions and to state their romantic interest in that person. The "romantic interest" variable was assessed by the participants' interest in either getting to know the person better, having a long-term relationship with the individual or possibly seeing themselves marrying that person. These three responses were averaged to create a composite score.

The results showed that for women, adding humor to the ad did little to attract the romantic interest of men. On the other hand, men's profiles that included jokes significantly increased the romantic interests of the women evaluating them. Moreover, women's judgments of men's humor were strongly correlated with how intelligent and warm they perceived the men to be. No such association was found among men evaluating women's ads.

In sum, these studies give further support to the theory that men and women use humor in different ways, especially when they are looking for mates. Women, who are choosier than men, draw on humor to evaluate the intelligence and warmth of their potential date, especially in the early stages of courtship. Men on the other hand are more focused on trying to impress their date with humor, perhaps in an attempt to convey other underlying traits such as intelligence. Men do not particularly care if the woman is funny, though they would like her to laugh at their jokes. All these results perfectly aligned with what sexual selection and the mental fitness indicator theories predict, showing that a good sense of humor is deeply rooted in our psychology.

Gil Greengross, Ph.D., is a psychologist and anthropologist at the University of Mexico.

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