Humor as a Route to Social Status

Is humor a route to social status?

Posted Jun 20, 2011

Just looking at grade school, it's easy to think that physical dominance is the only route to social status. It seems as though bullies who use physical intimidation, coercion, and fear inducing tactics are the ones who rise in the status hierarchy.

Luckily, this isn't the only path to social status, especially as one leaves grade school and enters the stage of life. As I've noted in an earlier post, different forms of social status arose in evolutionary history at different times and for different purposes. The dominant path is paved with conceit and arrogance, whereas the prestigious path is paved with accomplishment, skill, and prosocial behaviors (see "Two Routes to Social Status").

According to Darwin's theory of sexual selection, people can maximize their reproductive success in two main ways: (a) by having the traits that are attractive to the opposite sex (intersexual selection) or (b) by derogating same-sex rivals (intrasexual selection). In many species, animals display their dominance by physically hurting or even killing their sexual rivals. Humans, thankfully, have many different ways they can display dominance that don't just involve physical aggression. Among humans, one can display their social dominance through creativity, humor, and even empathy.

In a recent post by Gil Greegross called "Are women more attracted to men who court them with humor?", Greengross describes the results of a study conducted by Nicolas Guegen (download the complete study here). Greengross interprets the findings as showing that women are more attracted to men who court them with humor. Greengross is correct that humor is considered sexy, as his own prior high quality research has shown. However, I think the Guegen study particularly highlights the intrasexual selection aspect of Darwin's theory. To see why, let's zoom in a bit more on the study. Sometimes the devil is in the details, and in the case of this study I think the details of the methodology are particularly illuminating.

Guegen had three attractive 20 year old confederates (i.e., they were part of the study) go to a bar in France and wait until a female was in earshot of them. Once a female was in listening distance (all female participants were between the ages of 20-26), they started their experimental script, first by discussing their summer jobs. After 3 minutes, one of the confederates said to the others, "That's enough talking about work; I've got some good jokes to tell", to which another confederate responded, "Alright, go ahead! You always have some good jokes for us." Then, the first male confederate told three jokes. One joke clearly involved derogation:

Two friends are talking:
Say, buddy, could you loan me 100 Euros?
Well, you know I only have 60 on me.
Ok, give me what you've got and you'll only owe me 40.

After each joke, the two other confederates laughed loudly and said things like "That's amazing" or "You always have good jokes!". After all the jokes were told, the two other confederates noted that they had to leave, and then left. The first male confederate stayed, waited a minute, and then approached the female participant, saying

"Hello. My name's Antoine. I noticed you when I arrived here. I just want to say that I think your'e really pretty. I have an appointment now, but I was wondering if you might give me your phone number. I could phone you later, and we could have a drink together someplace to get to know each other."

After this request, the confederate waited 10 seconds while gazing and smiling at the participant. If the confederate got the phone number, he said "See you soon". If the participant refused to give him her phone number he said "Too bad. It's not my day. Have a nice evening!". Shortly after the female participant left, a young female who was also part of the experiment, approached the participant asked the participant to rate her impression of the man on a number of dimensions.

Importantly, the researchers also had another condition, called the No Humor condition. In this condition, the confederate who approached the girl was not the joke teller of the group but was one of the other confederates who laughed at the jokes (the same guy was in both conditions).

As Greengross notes, when the confederate was in the Humor condition he received about 3 times as many phone numbers (42.9% vs. 14.5%) than when he was in the No Humor condition. Likewise, when the confederate was in the Humor condition he was refused a phone number 57.1% of the time whereas he was refused a phone number a whopping 84.6% of the time in the No Humor condition! Clearly, the experimental manipulation had an effect, and it wasn't based on physical looks since the very same confederate was in both conditions. Additionally, women perceived the confederate in the Humor condition as particularly sociable and funny.

What's going on here? What's really driving this effect? My interpretation is that the man in the Humor condition was signaling that he was the most socially adept person in his group. He was also receiving what psychologists refer to as "social proofing" every time his friends laughed and commented on how awesome his jokes were (although personally I didn't find the jokes very funny at all).

Both of these factors will raise his social status in the eyes of any observers, and research shows that people are attracted to social status in a potential mate. In my view, the moral of the Guegen study has just as much to do with intrasexual selection as it does with intersexual selection. Those of you who are physically bullied on a regular basis, take heart and know that you can rise above it all someday by learning a socially valued skill.

On a personal note, I'm not a fan of the focus on competition that is central to the theory of intrasexual selection. I am fully aware why this is the focus: in the mating realm, there are clear winners and losers. I want to emphasize, however, that it's not necessary to derogate your rivals to gain social status and the reproductive benefits that can come with it. Displays of skill and social dominance were probably attractive to many of the female participants in the study, but research shows that empathy and prosociality are also key components of the presigious path to social status. In the study, the comparison groups involved either a socially dominant humor producer or a receiver who laughed at the jokes. There was no third condition in which the confederate was the humor producer and was also kind to his friends. I predict men in this condition would have been the most successful at obtaining phone numbers from the female participant since research shows that those who are funny, socially dominant, and empathic are considered the sexiest of them all.

I know that's certainly the case on my end. If I was on the experimenter side of things, I would have been most attracted to a female participant who responded to the confederate by saying something like this:

Congrats and well done on displaying your keen humor ability and social dominance amongst your friends, which Darwin would have predicted I would find attractive based on principles of sexual selection. However, I actually found your jokes rather mean spirited and you seemed too concerned with showing how amazing you are without making your friends feel good as well.

If I heard a response like that, I know my heart would have melted.

© 2011 by Scott Barry Kaufman

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