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So You Think You’re Funny?

A pirate walks into a bar with a steering wheel in his pants. The bartender looks at him, and says: “Hey buddy, that looks pretty uncomfortable.” The pirate says: “Arrrrrrrrr, it’s driving me nuts.” I have a feeling you find this joke very funny. As a consequence, you probably like me a lot at this point (unless I’m the only one who finds this joke funny). 

You don’t need a scientist to inform you that we all love to laugh. Humor is a social phenomenon; some researchers have estimated that we laugh about 18 times a day, mostly in the company of others.1 It should come as no surprise then that we like those who make us laugh. Research routinely shows that both men and women want a partner who has a good sense of humor.2 Exactly why we seek partners with a sense of humor, however, is a question that has fascinated researchers, who set out to determine the roles humor plays in our relationships.

A popular perspective that researchers have adapted to study humor’s role in attraction has been sexual selection (part of the larger evolutionary theoretical perspective). Evolutionary theorists posit that because men are the ones who compete for the attention of women, guys would be more likely to use humor to win women over. Women, in contrast, would be the ones who would evaluate the humor to see who is the most viable candidate for their affections.3 However, the findings based on this idea have been somewhat mixed. One study has found that not only do men and women both want to make others giggle (especially those whom they like), but both men and women appreciate those who can evoke an “lol” out of them.4 It appears, therefore, that there’s more to humor than just a way to get into someone’s pants; both men and women want someone with the funnies and simultaneously strive to be funny.

Thus, some have argued that humor plays a more general role in creating connections between people. Some researchers have found, for example, that female participants who interacted with another unacquainted female felt more closeness to one another when sharing humor (via silly tasks).5 Likewise, my colleagues and I have found that in both romantic and platonic relationships, the funnier we think people are, the more we like them. Why? Because humor leads us to enjoy interactions with others more and makes us think those others like us in return (and reciprocally, the more we like a partner, the more we try to make him or her laugh).6

The moral of the story is that humor is a pretty good thing to use socially with your friends, your boyfriends, your girlfriends, and even your mom (though I’d refrain from using “yo’ mamma” jokes in this case, as tempting as it may be). So why are you still reading this; go catch up on your jokes already!

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1Martin, R. A., & Kuiper, N. A. (1999). Daily occurrence of laughter: Relationships with age, gender, and Type A personality. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, 12, 355-384.

2Lippa, R.A. (2007). The preferred traits of mates in a cross-national study of heterosexual and homosexual men and women: An examination of biological and cultural influences. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 36, 193-208.

3Wilbur, C. J., & Campbell, L. E. (2011). Humor in romantic contexts: Do men participate and women evaluate? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 918-929.

4Li, N. P., Griskevicius, V., Durante, K. M., Jonason, P. K., Pasisz, D. J., & Aumer, K. (2009). An evolutionary perspective on humor: Sexual selection or interest indicator? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 923-936.

5Fraley, B., & Aron, A. (2004). The effect of a shared humorous experience on closeness in initial encounters. Personal Relationships, 11, 61-78.

6Treger, S., Sprecher, S., & Erber, R. (2012, July). Laughing and liking: Humor use and attraction in social relationships. Talk given at the 2012 Conference of the International Association for Relationship Research, Chicago, IL.  

Stan Treger, M.A. - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Stan is interested in (1) interpersonal connectedness and closeness; (2) attraction and relationship initiation; and (3) sexuality. He has published on infidelity, sexual attitudes, and women’s sexuality, and is currently investigating affective forecasting, humor, and transactive memory in close relationships.

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