Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

Living Edition
| Editors: Todd K. Shackelford, Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford

Humor as a Signal of Sexual Interest

  • Gil GreengrossEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_3248-1



Humor as sexually selected trait


Sense of humor is a sexually attractive trait that is ranked as one of the most desired attributes in a prospective mate. However, men and women are interested in somewhat different qualities of humor when choosing a mate. Women place greater importance on choosing a mate that makes them laugh, while men are more interested in a woman who will laugh at their humor. Sexual selection theory can explain these disparate preferences, and there is abundant evidence to support the view that men and women evolved different psychological adaptations to appreciate and create humor.

Humor as a Sexually Selected Trait

Researchers generally agree that sense of humor is an adaptive trait, though there is no consensus on the nature of the adaptation or the mechanism that explains the evolution of humor (Greengross 2014). One evolutionary explanation that has generated much empirical work is based on sexual selection theory, and the view that humor serves as a mental fitness indicator (Miller 2000). The theory focuses on the asymmetry in reproductive costs for men and women (as with most other mammals), and the fact that women invest more time and energy to care for children. This makes women choosier than men when selecting a mate and drives men to try and advertise mate qualities that would make them more appealing to women. A great sense of humor is hypothesized to serve as such a reliable cue for a high-quality mate, an honest signal of intelligence that underlies genetic quality (low mutation load). This advertisement of high quality humor is similar to the extraverted and colorful peacock’s tail, an ornament that functions as a fitness indicator to attract peahens. With humor, choosy women should be attuned to cues of high humor ability in men and be more attracted to men who manifest a great sense of humor, while men should try to allure women with their sense of humor.

Sex Differences in Humor Mate Preferences

Sense of humor is hypothesized to be a product of sexual selection and the differential life-histories of men and women that shaped distinct psychological adaptations. If sexual selection played a role in men’s and women’s humor mate preferences, we should expect to find sex differences in the way men and women enjoy and use humor. Specifically, women should express more interest in mating with a man who displays a great sense of humor, while men should be more attentive to cues showing that women appreciate their sense of humor, and put less emphasis on women’s humor ability. Indeed, several large and cross-cultural studies support the notion that women considered humor to be a more important trait when choosing a mate than men did (e.g., Lippa 2007). Women show a special preference for a man with good humor production ability over a man that appreciated their humor for all relationship types (dating, one-night stand, short- and long-term relationships, and friendship), while men show an overall preference for a woman that would appreciate their humor over a woman that would make them laugh (especially for dating purposes) (Bressler et al. 2006). One study found that the use of humor by an attractive man increased his desirability as a mate for women, for both short- and long-term relationships (Lundy et al. 1998). Other studies that looked at the actual mate choices of men and women uncovered similar trends. When analyzing actual personal dating ads, where people have little incentive to lie about their preferences, researchers found that women desired a humorous partner much more than the opposite (e.g., Wilbur and Campbell 2011).

Sex Differences in Humor Production

Based on sexual selection theory and viewing humor as a fitness indicator, it was hypothesized that women’s preference for a humorous mate would foster men to try and make women laugh. It is expected that funny men will be considered desirable as mates, while women’s humor ability should make little difference in how attractive men perceive them. A few lines of research support the view that men and women use and value humor differently. Studies that analyzed natural conversations between men and women in restaurants, shopping malls, sidewalks, and bars found that men were more likely than women to tell jokes and to initiate humor. Men’s efforts to make women laugh are quite successful, as evident by the larger amount of laughter displayed by women in response to men, compared to how much men laugh in response to women. Women tend to laugh almost twice as much as men in mixed conversations, and their laughter is mostly in response to men talking (Provine 1993). The larger amount of laughter manifested by women is not just an arbitrary feature, but rather signifies women’s sexual interest in men. Men who produce high quality humor are more physically attractive, while women’s humor ability makes little difference in how attractive they are to men. In addition, the amount of laughter by women predicts both women’s and men’s interests in dating each other, while men’s laughter does not evoke such interest in dating in either of the sexes (Grammer 1990).

Producing humor does not only make men more attractive to women but can also increase mating success. Individuals with higher humor production ability exhibit greater sexual access to partners of the opposite sex, as measured by actual sexual behaviors. Funny people report earlier age at first intercourse, larger number of sex partners, and having more sex in general, compared to the less funny individuals (Greengross and Miller 2011). These results were true for both men and women; however, the incentives for men to be funny are greater, as women are attracted to funny men but not the opposite. Men therefore are presumed to be more motivated than women to use humor, with the hope of mating with women who find their humor attractive. Further support for the benefits men gain from producing high quality humor comes from a slew of studies showing the men’s humor production ability is greater, on average, than those of women, which makes it more likely for men to use humor to attract mates (Greengross and Miller 2011; Mickes et al. 2012).

The allure of having a great sense of humor seems to be true for both short-term and long-term mating. For example, women are more likely to give their phone number to a man, and also find him more attractive, when he is telling jokes to a friend, than to the friend who laughed at the jokes. In addition, spousal humorousness was more important for the marital satisfaction of the wives than the husbands in a cross-cultural study of five countries (Weisfeld et al. 2011).


Both men and women recognize the significance of humor in attracting mates, but they differ in the importance they place on producing and appreciating humor. Women emphasize finding a man who will make them laugh, while men are more interested in a woman that will appreciate their humor and laugh at their jokes. Ample evidence suggests that humor is a sexually dimorphic trait, where women are attracted to men with high humor abilities, while women’s sense of humor does little to attract men. Men are more interested in women laughing at their jokes, and women’s laughter signals their romantic interest in a man. Men’s laughter does not affect how attracted women are to them. A great sense of humor is an attractive trait that translates into mating success, and this is true especially for men, as men are more motivated to create high quality humor and produce better humor than women, on average.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyAberystwyth UniversityAberystwythUK

Section editors and affiliations

  • Valerie G. Starratt
    • 1
  1. 1.Nova Southeastern UniversityFort LauderdaleUSA