Humor is often cited as an important trait in relationships, but how accurately do we perceive our partner’s sense of humor? That was the question tackled by researchers in a new study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Their findings indicate that people are generally accurate judges of their partner’s sense of humor. But those in highly satisfying relationships show a stronger tendency to assume that their partner’s humor styles are similar to their own.
“When we talk about what makes a ‘perfect partner,’ we almost always mention wanting someone who would make us laugh — and lots of research points to how important humor is in happy, healthy relationships,” said study author Mariah F. Purol, a PhD candidate at Michigan State University.
“I think this is interesting when we consider how subjective humor is. I wanted to know if people have an accurate understanding of how funny their partners are and how they use humor. I also wanted to know if this was connected in any way to how happy people were in their relationships — is ignorance really bliss?”
Purol and her colleagues aimed to investigate the accuracy of people’s perception of their partner’s humor styles and its impact on relationship satisfaction. The study was conducted with 337 heterosexual couples between the ages of 19 and 89 years.
The couples were recruited through the survey software company Qualtrics. Participants completed the Humor Styles Questionnaire, a 32-item measure that includes four subscales capturing four types of humor: self-enhancing, affiliative, self-defeating, and aggressive. The participants rated themselves and their partners on each subscale.
Self-enhancing humor involves the ability to find humor in everyday situations, even when things may not be going well. Affiliative humor involves the use of humor to create social bonds and strengthen relationships. Self-defeating humor involves making oneself the butt of the joke, often at the expense of self-esteem or self-worth. Aggressive humor involves using sarcasm, insults, and put-downs to belittle others and assert one’s dominance.
Additionally, participants were asked to rate how funny they found themselves and their partners in general. Relationship satisfaction was measured with a modified version of the Couples Satisfaction Index, a five-item measure that asks participants about their satisfaction with their current romantic relationship.
The study found that, overall, participants demonstrated accuracy in their judgments of their partner’s humor styles, regardless of the specific type of humor style being evaluated. This suggests that people are generally good at perceiving and understanding their partner’s sense of humor.
However, the study also found that bias varied across different humor styles. For example, participants tended to slightly underestimate the amount of self-enhancing humor their partner used, and slightly overestimate the amount of aggressive humor their partner used.
There was also an association between relationship satisfaction and the tendency for people to assume that their partner’s humor styles are similar to their own. Those in particularly satisfying relationships showed a stronger assumed similarity bias when judging their partner’s humor styles. This suggests that people may have a tendency to project their own humor styles onto their partner, or to interpret their partner’s humor in a way that aligns with their own style.
“In general, we have a pretty good understanding of our partners’ humor and how funny they are,” Purol told PsyPost. “However, sometimes, couples who assume that they share a sense of humor with their partner (even if that’s not the case) report being a little happier in their relationships. This aligns well with other work on personality similarity in relationships: maybe being similar doesn’t matter too much, but thinking that you’re similar does.”
The researchers also found that participants who were more satisfied reported that their partner used more adaptive humor, including affiliative and self-enhancing humor. Those more satisfied with their relationship also rated their partner as funnier. Those who were less satisfied, in contrast, reported that their partner used more aggressive humor.
Furthermore, participants consistently judged their partner to be more humorous than their partner judged themselves to be.
“There were some wholesome little findings along the way that made me smile; the fact that partners consistently rated participants as funnier than participants rated themselves was very endearing,” Purol said.
But the study, like all research, includes some caveats.
“In perception research, it can be challenging to measure the ‘truth’ — whose perspective is ‘true’? If I think that I’m hilarious, but my partner thinks my jokes are terrible, who is ‘right’?” Purol explained. “In this study, participants’ self-reports of humor were treated like the truth. In another study, it would be interesting to get reports of a participant’s humor from lots of different observers (e.g., friends, family members, strangers, etc.). Maybe if I think I’m funny, but everyone around me disagrees, the wisdom of the crowd gets a little bit closer to what is really true.”
The study, “Partner Accuracy in Humor Perception and Associations With Relationship Satisfaction“, was authored by Mariah F. Purol and William J. Chopik.