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

To reliably signal fitness, humor must be difficult to imitate.  Unlike memorized jokes, difficult-to-fake humor involves creativity, spontaneity, and a keen awareness of social timing and interpersonal dynamics.  When humor is more rudimentary, its effects are less impressive.  Unrefined opening gambits that sound like memorized jokes keep conversations going less well than spontaneous wit (Bale, Morrison, & Caryl, 2006).  Contradictory evidence suggests that sophomoric humor (e.g., “Birthday cake is the only food you can blow on and spit on and everybody rushes to get a piece,” p. 32) can still produce romantic interest, despite implying unfavorable underlying qualities (Bressler & Balshine, 2006). This finding, however, should be interpreted cautiously because the study did not distinguish between short-term or long-term affairs.  When a relationship-length distinction is made, people who offer flippant pick-up lines might be tolerable for the short-term, but not the long-term (Senko & Fyffe, 2010).  For long-term relationships, high-quality humor, the kind that is spontaneous and difficult to fake, outperforms unsophisticated humor perhaps because the former conveys underlying intelligence (Miller, 2000a; 2000b).

Humor as a Cue for Intelligence

Both men and women desire intelligent partners (Lippa, 2007) and intelligence translates to advantages in resource acquisition, social interactions, genes, child-rearing, and co-parenting (Lippa, 2007; Miller, 2000a; 2000b). These outcomes enhance survival, explaining the appeal of intelligence from an evolutionary perspective.  If humor can reliably signal intelligence, then humor might itself be attractive during relationship initiation.  This fits nicely into sexual selection theory (Miller 2000a; 2000b): over time, displaying humor to communicate intelligence may have proved reproductively beneficial, rendering humor an established courtship behavior in today’s mating game. 

Evidence connecting humor with intelligence supports the evolutionary hypothesis that humor developed to indicate fitness.  Humor production correlates with intelligence in numerous cultures (Weisfeld et al., 2011) and twin studies suggest a shared genetic basis for humor styles and emotional intelligence (Vernon et al., 2009).  People who can draw funnier pictures and tell funnier stories tend to be more intelligent (Howrigan & MacDonald, 2008), and people’s abstract reasoning skills and verbal intelligence can predict how effectively they produce funny captions to unlabeled cartoons (Greengross & Miller, 2011).  Interestingly, people’s ability to generate humor corresponds with their reported number of short-term dating partners (Greengross & Miller, 2011).  In other words, those who can showcase their intellect through humor are having more sexual liaisons, presumably in part because their humor renders them more attractive.

Gender Differences in Humor

We now know that certain types of humor might tell us about underlying intelligence better than others, but if humor really evolved as a fitness indicator, Miller (2000a; 2000b) argued that we should see gender differences in humor use during relationship initiation.  This assumption is based on a classic feature of sexual selection theory referred to as differential parental investment, which contends that females risk more than males in any sexual interaction because their potential costs incurred are greater (Trivers, 1972).  These costs are linked to biologically-based differences in the minimum investment required for males (e.g., copulation) and females (e.g., a 9-month gestation period, generally followed by months or years of breast-feeding) for a given offspring to survive.  Females also have fewer chances than males to reproduce because of their brief fertile window and limited number of eggs (compared to trillions of sperm).  With so much more at stake, women are apt to be particularly choosy in the partners they select (Kenrick, Groth, Trost, & Sadalla, 1993).

Gender differences in humor may arise from the fact that females are highly selective.  Female selectivity puts the burden on men to vigorously advertise their viability as partners, i.e., males may need to showcase their fitness to attract female attention.  Accordingly, men tend to display and brag about their resources more than women (Buss, 1988).  They might derogate a rival, engage in self-promotion, or conspicuously spend money (Fisher & Cox, 2011; Griskevicius et al., 2007).  Men may also showcase their fitness through humor, and if so, we should anticipate a gender difference in humor during flirtation (Miller, 2000b).

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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