The production of humor leading to laughter and cheerfulness in others.
Humor production and appreciation is a human universal and may have evolved as a species typical adaptation in humans (Greengross and Miller 2008). Across the vast majority of cultures, “a good sense of humor” in a partner is listed off among other seemingly more important traits like intelligence and attraction (Bressler et al. 2006). From an evolutionary perspective, we understand that typical attractive features are thought to be indicative of genetic fitness (i.e., lower mutation load) and thus are considered fitness indicators. Taking that idea a step farther, Miller (2001) explains that there are also mental fitness indicators – honest signals to genetic fitness via behavioral interactions with the environment: intelligence, creativity (including artistic and musical ability), and humor. In order for an individual to successfully deliver “good” humor, they must possess intelligence and creativity. Essentially effective humor production requires the coordination of a multitude of other (mental) traits that have underlying genetic quality.
Interestingly, though “a good sense of humor” is generally desired, a few research studies found that males were not necessarily attracted to women that were considered “funny.” In actuality, it seems the way in which males and females used the phrase “good sense of humor” differs. While men only emphasize the importance of a partner’s receptivity to humor, women emphasize both humor production and receptivity equally; the difference lies in the attraction to humor production (Bressler et al. 2006). Essentially, from this view, humor production is a mental fitness indicator and humor receptivity/appreciation signals sexual interest.
This interest though seems to be contingent on the way and type of humor being produced. Typically, when discussing humor, the first thing that comes to mind are jokes with a distinct set-up and punch lines – yet structured jokes only make up 10%–15% of laughter in typical social contexts (Greengross and Miller 2008). Surprisingly, most laughter is derived from individuals reacting to spontaneous stimuli within the environment during informal conversations. An ability to react to these situations quickly and respond in a humorous manner hints to the recruitment of a number of processes (like intelligence, creativity, and an assessment of social context) to produce a response quickly. Because of the acuity of these jokes, replication does often not yield the same response due to the change in (social) context.
From a mating relevant perspective, two specific types of humor forms standout: self- and other-deprecating humor. Self-deprecating humor takes the form of “making fun of oneself” for perceived deficits in various traits like intelligence or physical attractiveness. Typically this type of humor is found in mating contexts: during courtship or in mated-pairs when a partner is trying to relieve tension after a disagreement (Greengross and Miller 2008). That being said, it can be considered somewhat risky due to the fact that it may actually draw attention to true flaws in an individual. Other-deprecating humor (often referred to as “dissing”) usually arises between potential rivals when the perceived deficits in another individual’s traits (i.e., intelligence, status, attractiveness) are essentially mocked. This form of humor may be taken as more of an insult than a joke, resulting in possible retaliation from the individual being “dissed.” Both forms of humor present potential risks if not delivered properly. The costly signaling theory explains that if an individual can successfully execute a “risky” or potentially costly behavior, they may be considered more attractive. Unsurprisingly, self-deprecating humor is considered more attractive than other-deprecating humor when used by high-status long-term mates.
Humor is an incredibly salient part of our lives: In order to be pulled off correctly, it must be coordinated by many complex systems, yet it plays an incredibly important role in communicating with potential mates or partners. Our desire for humor (delivered appropriately) speaks to the complexity of our evolutionary mating systems.
- Miller, G. F. (2001). The mating mind: How sexual choice shaped the evolution of human nature. New York: Anchor Books.Google Scholar