Chad Michael Murray, the actor from One Tree Hill, once said, “To all the girls out there who think being funny is not sexy, you are wrong!” He not only has a point, but there is some research to back him up. Two guys walk into a bar… and according to research, whomever women consider funnier will also be seen as more attractive and suitable for a long-term relationship.1 Having a funny partner may simply make them more fun to be around, but it is also possible that a good sense of humor indicates that a person has advanced language skills, creativity, abstract thinking, and intelligence.2 Put another way, a quick wit may signal the quality of a potential partner’s genetic make-up, which can lead that person to appear more attractive. Then again, maybe attractive people are more likely to be naturally funny, or are more likely to be perceived by others as funny. Recent research delves deeper into these issues to answer two key questions: Is being funny more attractive for short-term or long-term relationships? Does physical attractiveness influence ratings of funniness?
How They Did It
A lot of previous research on humor and attraction compares descriptions where one person is described as funny or not to see which person others rate as more attractive. Saying someone is funny is okay, but showing them actually being funny is much more realistic – or, as the researchers would say, it has greater ecological validity. To accomplish this, researchers in a recent study videotaped undergraduates answering the question “If you went to a desert island, and could take two out of the three objects, what would you take and what would you do with it?’’ The objects were chocolate, hairspray, or a plastic bag.3 Although the researchers did not tell targets (i.e., those in the video) to be funny, of the 40, 19 naturally gave humorous responses as judged by the researchers. Researchers then paired targets’ pictures with clips (either audio only or audio with video) of their responses. Another group then rated the targets’ funniness, physical attractiveness, and suitability as a short-term and long-term partner.
What They Found
To answer whether physical attractiveness influences perception of funniness, researchers compared the participants’ ratings of the audio clips to the ratings of the audio + video clips. Because participants rated targets as funnier when they saw video clips versus just listening to the audio clips, it suggests that physical attractiveness does influence perception of funniness. However, when comparing high vs. low attractive targets (as determined by independent raters), the more attractive targets were funnier regardless of the type of clip (audio only vs. audio+video). In other words, being attractive made the target funnier no matter what. The researchers also found that perceived funniness made males more attractive as short-term and long-term partners. For females, however, being funny only made them more attractive as short-term partners. A follow-up study focusing on ratings of targets’ flirtatiousness found that participants perceived funny males and females as more flirtatious.
What the Results Mean For You
Clearly, it is better to be funny. However, this does not mean that you should walk into a bar with a bunch of canned jokes. At least in this study, it seems that spontaneous witty or “off the cuff” humor benefits perceived attractiveness. It also appears that being funny is more important if you are a male. This is consistent with other research showing that heterosexual men are typically the comedians while women are the evaluative audience (click here for a previous post on this topic). Overall, this research helps explain why women find guys like Conan O’Brien and Louis CK attractive. It also suggests that flashing a bit of wit is an effective way to flirt, especially for the funny guys of the world. Or, just be hot.
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1McGhee, E., & Shevlin, M. (2009). Effect of humor on interpersonal attraction and mate selection. The Journal of Psychology, 143(1), 67–77.
2Polimeni, J., & Reiss, J. P. (2006). The first joke: Exploring the evolutionary origins of humor. Evolutionary Psychology, 4, 347-366.
3Cowan, M., & Little, A. (2013). The effects of relationship context and modality on ratings of funniness. Personality and Individual Differences, 54, 496-500.
Dr. Gary Lewandowski - Science of Relationships articles | Website
Dr. Lewandowski's research explores the role of the self in romantic relationships with a specific focus on self-expansion. He has authored dozens of publications for both academic and non-academic audiences and is a member of the Editorial Board for the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.