If you ask someone to list the characteristics they require in a potential dating partner, it is likely that they would say they want someone with a good sense of humour.  In online dating, this even has its own abbreviation (GSOH).  Humour may be especially important in online interactions because after the initial impression given by a person’s profile picture, it is what a person says and how they describe themselves which takes over and becomes more salient.  So why is sense of humour important here?

One of the reasons why both males and females are attracted to a good sense of humour is because humour puts people in a good and positive mood.  In an initial encounter with someone, our mood is a crucial factor in determining attraction.  If we experience positive feelings, this subsequently leads to a positive evaluation of the other person.  Conversely if we experience negative feelings this leads to negative evaluations.  Furthermore, the people with whom we are interacting when we experience positive or negative emotions tends to be associated with these feelings and become treated in either a positive or negative way too.  The fact that we are attracted to those who make us laugh and induce a positive mood can be explained in terms of a basic learning paradigm known as classical conditioning.  After successive pairings of a particular person with a happy mood state, the presence of the person alone should elicit the same happy mood.

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So having established that most of us desire someone with a good sense of humour, we now need to explore in more detail precisely what we mean by this.  In a study by Bressler, Martin & Balshine, 2006, participants were asked to think of the following.  Imagine a situation where you are choosing between two potential dating partners. They are equally physically attractive, intelligent, interesting, friendly and compassionate.  The only difference between them is in the following.

  • One is great at making you laugh and you think they are very funny. However, they don’t laugh all that much when you make jokes.  They listen to you, but when you make jokes you rarely get more than a smile from them.  
  • The other laughs at all your jokes and think you are a very funny person, but you don’t find their jokes very funny.  You understand their jokes and don’t find them offensive, but they rarely make you laugh. 

Therefore, as we can see, the term 'good sense of humour' can mean either producing humorous material, or being receptive to the humour produced by others.  Which person do you choose, the person who makes you laugh, or the person who laughs at your jokes?  Bressler et al (2006) reported that males prefer females who are receptive to their humour and laugh at their jokes, whereas females value humour production in a relationship partner.

Why do males like females who laugh at their jokes?

It has been found that when females and males are engaged in conversation, it is the amount of laughter produced by the female and not the amount of laughter produced by the male, which predicts sexual interest (Grammer & Eibl-Eibesfeldt (1990).  This finding suggests that males should prefer females who appreciate their humour and laugh at their jokes because this may signal sexual interest.  Therefore, even though males and females report that they find sense of humour in a dating partner desirable, for males at least, this means preferring a female who appreciates their humour, rather than being attracted to one who makes jokes herself.  It is also the case that males tend to use humour more than females, and also use it more than females in intersexual advertising to attract females (Simpson, Gangestad, Christensen, & Leck (1999).

Why do females like males who can make them laugh?

Males who can produce humour and make people laugh may be more creatively intelligent than males who do not produce humour.  Therefore being able to produce humour is an indication of intelligence in males, and as such these males may possess better genes at least as far as intelligence is concerned.  Hence females prefer males who can make them laugh, because humorous males may be able to give their offspring superior genetic benefits in terms of intelligence (Miller, 2001).  Additionally, the ability to make someone laugh requires a certain level of social intelligence in terms of appreciating and understanding what someone else does and does not find funny.

However, Bressler et al (2006) found that females still chose males who could produce humour over those who could not, even if their humour was unsophisticated, which would not be an indication of intelligence. In this study however, humorous males were judged as being more socially skilled, and indeed, generating humour takes a degree of self-confidence and poise, characteristics females consistently rate in males.  For example, physically attractive males who used self-deprecating humour were rated as more desireable than physically attractive males who did not use this type of humour.  Using self-deprecating humour requires a degree of confidence, and presumably the former group were rated as more attractive because they were perceived as possessing this quality (Lundy, Tan & Cunningham, 1998).

The Additional Impact of a Sense of Humour

A partner’s sense of humour also has an effect in established relationships.  Females in relationships with more humorous partners rated them as being more creative and intelligent, and also as being more popular and better leaders.  In terms of their sexual relationships, females with more humorous partners, said that they had more sex generally, initiated sex more often, and generally felt more committed to their partner (Gallup, Ampel, Wedberg & Pogosjan, 2014).

We have seen that humour production appears to indicate both greater intelligence and superior genetic potential or social skills superiority, each of which females find desirable in a male, whereas humour receptivity indicates female sexual interest in a male.  In our ancestoral past, this meant that females who responded positively to humour producers would have benefited by being able to reproduce with these males.  Similarly males who learned to attend more to females, who appreciated their humour and signalling sexual interest, would also have benefited reproductively.

Applying this evolutionary psychology approach to the context of online dating, it can be seen that males who construct humorous profiles and engage in online messaging using humour might attract more females.  Females on the other hand might attract desirable males by being receptive to humorous profile descriptions or humorous messages.  Even on a basic level, having a good sense of humour (whatever that means) suggests that we can interact easily with others and that we possess a relaxed and fun-loving personality, all of which make us more attractive.

References

Bressler, E. R., Martin, R. A., & Balshine, S. (2006) ‘Production and appreciation of humour as sexually selected traits’ Evolution and Human Behavior, 27, 121–130.

Gallup, G. G., Ampel, B. C., Wedberg, N., & Pogosjan, A. (2014)  Do orgasms give women feedback about mate choice? Evolutionary Psychology, 12(5), 958-978.

Grammer, K., & Eibl-Eibesfeldt, I. (1990). The ritualisation of laughter. In W. Koch (Ed.), Naturalichkeit der sprache un der kulture: Acta colloquii, (pp. 192–214). Bochum7 Brockmeyer.

Lundy, D. E., Tan, J., & Cunningham, M. R. (1998). Heterosexual romantic preferences: The importance of humour and physical attractiveness for different types of relationships. Personal Relationships, 5, 311–325.

Miller, G. F. (2001). Aesthetic fitness: How sexual selection shaped artistic virtuosity as a fitness indicator and aesthetic preferences as mate choice criteria. Bulletin of Psychology and the Arts, 2, 20–25.

Simpson, J. A., Gangestad, S. W., Christensen, P. N., & Leck, K. (1999). Fluctuating asymmetry, sociosexuality, and intrasexual competitive tactics. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76, 159–172.

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