The Serious Business of Being Funny: How Humor Works in the Dating World
Everybody loves a good joke. Even if it is as corny as the one above, everyone enjoys being entertained with some type of humor. Recently, we looked at data from 20,000 of our eHarmony members, and found that both men and women listed “I must have someone who is sharp and can enjoy the humorous side of life” as their most important Must Have. Why is everyone looking for somebody with a sense of humor and why is it the most important trait?
A study by Wilbur & Campbell (2011) examined how humor works in romantic situations. They first examined how men and women use humor to get to know potential dates. They found men and women use humor differently, in that men are more likely to produce humor than women, and women are more likely to evaluate the other’s humor than men. In other words, on most first dates, men are more likely to make jokes, and women are more likely to laugh at them (or stare back, unamused).
They also found the same results in evaluating dating profiles. Men were more likely to describe themselves as funny, whereas women were more frequently found to say they were looking for someone with a great sense of humor. In the final portion of their study, the researchers inserted a funny “one-liner” joke in a fake online dating profile to see how it would affect the desirability of this potential date. The result? Including a joke would make men more romantically interesting to women, but did not make women more romantically interesting to men.
But what causes this difference in humor between men and women? The researchers suggested an evolutionary explanation. According to sexual selection theory, women are more decisive in whom they select as a mate because of a heavier investment in raising offspring, and the less-invested gender (men) will compete for mating opportunities. Men are in essence using humor as a tactic of competing with one another to hopefully spark the romantic interest of a woman. Women are more evaluative of men’s humor because they are more careful in their mate selection and looking for ideal traits in their mate.
Men could also be using humor as a way to reveal they are a worthy mate choice. Displays of humor could show how intelligent and warm they are in general. Humor can be considered a fitness indicator, in that having the ability to create humor requires cognitive flexibility, theory of mind, and communicative skill.
If you have the capability of creating humor, you are revealing that you are more likely to have other positive traits that women are looking for. In the study above, the women’s ratings of a man’s humor was significantly associated with their ratings of the man’s intelligence and warmth, showing that women see funny men as more intelligent, positive, and upbeat.
Even though both men and women say the most important thing to them in a partner is a sense of humor, they seem to be thinking about it in completely different ways. So men, when you are creating your online profiles or meeting someone for the first time, try showing people how funny you can be; it could reveal a lot more about you than you think.
How important is humor to you in a partner — and do you intentionally try to be witty to impress dates?
Wilbur, C. J., & Campbell, L. (2011). Humor in romantic contexts: Do men participate and women evaluate? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 918-929.
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