A funny thing happened on the way to romance: How humor influences romantic relationship initiation

Is a funny pick-up line a good idea, or will it hurt your chances?  The role of humor in courtship is a fascinating puzzle that is beginning to receive empirical attention. The current article provides a glimpse at when and why humor might be useful during romantic relationship initiation, and explains how your humor style might affect your success in attracting a potential romantic partner.

If you were to list all the attractive qualities that you might look for in a potential romantic partner, chances are that a “good sense of humor” would rank high on your list.  Someone who makes you laugh, tells a good joke, giggles at your one-liners … these attributes seem to have near universal appeal.  Indeed, a good sense of humor is perceived as highly attractive (Lippa, 2007), ranking as the number one most effective tactic for appealing to the opposite sex (Buss, 1988).  Given its pervasive desirability, have you ever wondered why people are attracted to humor?  And further, in the confusing whirlwind of match making, how do people most effectively showcase their humor?  The following article uses current research to help unravel the puzzle of humor in romantic relationship initiation.

On the surface, humor seems like a superficial part of a first conversation.  Jokes or witty banter are not typically rich with get-to-know-you information and often relate only tangentially to a topic under discussion, if at all.  Yet, humor is consistently identified as an important quality in potential romantic partners.  Humor is attractive not only in the United States (Sprecher & Regan, 2002) but in cultures all over the world (Hatfield & Sprecher, 1995; Lippa, 2007).  Laboratory studies echo self-reported preferences, showing that people rate humorous hypothetical dating prospects more favorably than less humorous candidates (McGee & Shevlin, 2009).  Particularly convincing is evidence from experimental field studies, such as one demonstrating that women are more likely to give their phone numbers to men who tell funny jokes than those who do not (Guéguen, 2010). Still, we all know that humor sometimes falls flat, creating more of an awkward situation than perfect moment.  Evidence also supports this observation, with humor at times registering as an ineffective and inappropriate flirting strategy (Weber, Goodboy, & Cayanus, 2010).  So which is it?  Does humor help or hurt relationship initiation?  To help avert a flirting disaster and to grow in our understanding of social dynamics, we can take a closer look at the role humor plays in romantic attraction, uncovering not only when but also why humor may facilitate a love connection.

Humor from the Sexual-Selection Perspective

Some evolutionary theorists suggest that humor may have evolved specifically to support successful dating decisions, or in evolutionary terms, mating decisions. This perspective begins by recognizing humor as a puzzling characteristic.  Being funny differs from traits like social dominance, wealth, or physical attractiveness, preferences for which can be explained for their direct evolutionary benefits (Buss & Schmitt, 1993; Sadalla, Kenrick, & Vershure, 1987).  A socially-dominant, wealthy man can provide resources for his family, enhancing his and their survival.  Likewise, a woman’s physically attractiveness signals her health and fertility, which promote successful reproduction (Buss & Schmitt, 1993).  Humor, however, bears no direct influence on survival.  Up against this mystery, researchers looked more deeply into the experience of humor and what it might reveal in social interactions.

Hard-to-Fake Humor

Think for a moment about your funniest friend.  Could you easily imitate his or her witty comebacks or hilarious stories?  Probably not.  Humor is often incredibly difficult to imitate, a characteristic that suggests it might reliably signal underlying fitness (Miller 2000a; 2000b).  By fitness, scholars mean the quality of individuals’ heritable traits, including genes, physical health, and psychological functioning (Andersson, 1994).  People try to select romantic partners with maximal fitness so that they (and any future offspring) can benefit from their partner’s top-notch genetic qualities.  

From the editors

Why might humour play an important role in romantic attraction? DiDonato (2013) traces the reasons from two main perspectives: when humour acts a sexual selection cue, and when humour acts as an interest indicator. I particularly enjoyed the section on “How to use humour in relationship initiation”. Without sounding like a humour recipe book to create humour (which by the way, is extremely difficult to fake), DiDonato gives hints and tips on the type of humour to use and when (e.g., are you looking for a short or long term mate?) which are supported by empirical evidence.

As humour is theorized to evolve as a fitness indicator and due to the differential parental cost (therefore the requirement for females to be pickier), DiDonato identifies the gender difference when it comes to the importance of humour within a potential mate. Indeed, she cites research supporting this trend: men, in general, tend to seek women that appreciate their jokes whereas women, in general, tend to focus on whether the men can make them laugh. Although the trend and rationale makes sense, I can’t help but think about the reverse where women do the initiating instead of men. Are these women still humour absorbers or do they reciprocate in humour production?

Another interesting point regards the different types of humour that exists. Accordingly, there are two main groups of humour styles: positive and negative humour. Based on DiDonato and colleagues’ research (2013), humour styles influence the success of long-term relationship initiation. Positive humour was found to be more beneficial for those who were looking to start a long-term relationship; the style of humour did not really matter for those who were looking to start a short-term relationship. However, social interactions do not happen within a vacuum; I think situational factors may also determine whether positive or negative humour influence the success rate of the relationship initiation. For example, it may be possible for negative humour to work in the man’s favour, especially if the aggressive joke was about an aggressor that the man had just saved the woman from. If used correctly, might negative humour actually reflect the strength or capabilities of the humour initiator? Also, what might be the reaction of men when the woman is the negative humour initiator?

I think it is likely that many of us have come across humour during a relationship initiation in one way or another and this article is definitely relevant to those who are looking for a potential love interest. Does the article agree with what you are experiencing or have experienced previously? Share with us your thoughts and comments below!

Laysee Ong
Associate Editor

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