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

Does a gender difference in humor ring true with your own experiences?  Have you ever noticed men making women laugh, while women are doing the laughing?  Scientific support for this gender difference is accumulating.  Husbands in China, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States tend to make their wives laugh more than their wives make them laugh, although wives are the leading comedians in Russia (Weisfeld et al., 2011).  In the U.S., men tend to value women’s receptivity to their own humor over women’s attempts to be funny, while women view both humor receptivity and production as important (Bressler, Martin, & Balshine, 2006).  Further, women like men who produce humor, while men seem impartial to humorous women (Bressler & Balshine, 2006).  Perhaps humor production is a way for men, more than women, to display their underlying positive qualities during courtship.

Humor Production vs. Humor Appreciation

In a particularly convincing set of studies, Wilbur and Campbell (2011) offered support for humor as a fitness indicator during relationship initiation.  They first demonstrated that men report producing humor more than women during relationship initiation, while women reported appreciating and evaluating humor more than men.  An analysis of online dating profiles supported these gender differences: men tended to offer humor production (e.g., self-describing as “witty” or an “aspiring stand-up comic”; p. 923), while women indicated they wanted a humor producer (e.g., someone who “can make me laugh”; p. 923).  In their final study, Wilbur and Campbell (2011) asked participants about their potential romantic interest in a person depicted in a hypothetical online dating profile.  Consistent with sexual selection theory and humor as a fitness indicator, women who rated the person as funnier also tended to find him more attractive, whereas this pattern did not emerge for men.  Women’s humor ratings corresponded with inferences of intelligence as well as warmth, a characteristic linked to sharing resources and co-parenting skill (Miller, 2007).  In sum, Wilbur and Campbell’s (2011) research offers compelling evidence that humor’s privileged place in flirtatious interactions may stem from its ability to signal underlying fitness. 


Alternative Perspectives on Humor

The fitness-indicator model offers one fascinating explanation for humor, but other key perspectives are also worth our attention.  Some evolutionary theorists contend that humor evolved to promote social bonding, in dating and in other social context (Storey, 2003).  Indeed, for potential friends and romantic partners alike, engaging in a humorous interaction, such as playing a silly game of charades, induces feelings of liking and closeness (Treger, Sprecher, & Erber, 2013).  Perhaps humor is a desirable mate characteristic simply because it increases the enjoyment of a social interaction.  After all, at least in Western culture, both gay and straight individuals value playful and fun romantic partners (Morgan, Richards, VanNess, 2010).

Taking a slightly different approach, humor’s purpose may be to communicate interest (Li et al., 2009).  Unlike the sexual-selection approach, this interest-indicator model suggests humor follows (rather than precedes) romantic attraction, but, like the social bonding perspective (Treger et al., 2013) still allows for a reciprocal relation between humor and liking.  

Although different, these three perspectives are certainly compatible.  In the mating game, humor may signal underlying positive traits while also communicating interest and increasing the pleasantness of a conversation.  Both the interest indicator model (Li et al., 2009) and the social bonding explanation (Storey, 2003) also pick up where the sexual-selection model leaves off, suggesting that people use humor to begin and maintain not only romantic, but also friend, family, and work relationships.

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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