A series of four studies looked into how women evaluate humor in men, finding that women prefer funny men, particularly physically attractive ones, viewing humor as a signal of investment potential, especially in the context of long-term mating. This research was published in Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences.
“What got me interested in this topic was a combination of wanting to understand the science of humor as a (mediocre) standup comedian and being dissatisfied with the manner in which seemingly complementary approaches to studying the function of humor mating domains did not integrate as clearly as they could have,” said study author Mitch Brown, PhD (@ExtravertedFace), an instructor of psychological science at the University of Arkansas.
“First, the sexual selection approach to humor focuses almost entirely on mating domains with less concern about how humor is such a ubiquitous process (e.g., Bressler & Balshine, 2006). Nonetheless, whereas the interest indicator model can address humor’s dynamic function in forming social bonds (Li et al., 2009), this approach has a challenge by itself in looking at the very apparent sex differences in humor production and quality that favor men due to women’s greater judiciousness in what they view as funny from a prospective mate (e.g., Greengross et al., 2020; Wilbur & Campbell, 2011).”
“I wanted to integrate these two approaches by specifically pitting attempts at humor production with whether the humor was actually funny itself. I did not think either the sexual selection or interest indicator approach to humor was more correct than the other, just that the role of their complementarity deserved an empirical test.”
Study 1 included 162 women up to 40 years old. They evaluated 6 men in hypothetical speed dating rounds. Participants evaluated a facial image with a neutral expression paired with either a funny or unfunny joke or a control statement. Participants saw two funny and two unfunny jokes, as well as two control statements, presented in randomized and counterbalanced orders. They provided a 7-point rating for the funniness of each statement, the man’s successfulness in attracting mates, his friendliness, and the likelihood of the participant sharing her phone number with him.
Study 2 recruited 81 women. They were presented with eight men who were paired with either a funny or unfunny statement in a random and counterbalanced order. The targets were described as having shared the joke in conversation in each speed date session. Participants provided 7-point ratings for the funniness of each joke, the man’s successfulness in dating, as well as his intelligence, how good he is with children, and earning potential.
Study 3 recruited 109 women and followed the same paradigm as Studies 1 and 2. In addition to rating the funniness of the joke and the target’s mating success, participants also rated how desirable they found the target for both a short- and long-term relationship on a 9-point scale.
Study 4 included 141 women, and largely followed the procedure of Study 3. The only difference here was that participants were presented with the most and least attractive White faces between ages 18-30, derived from the Chicago Faces Database; the researchers write, “participants evaluated two attractive targets telling funny jokes, two unattractive targets telling funny jokes, two attractive targets telling unfunny jokes, and two unattractive targets telling unfunny jokes.”
Brown explained the results of this research, “In this work, the mere display of humor connotes friendliness to a prospective mate, which provides continued evidence for the interest indicator model of humor.”
“However, a failed attempt at humor from a man elicits no greater attraction than a control statement not intended to be funny. A humorous display that is actually funny will elicit both perceptions of friendliness and attraction from women, an effect that replicated through these studies. Given the competence that successful humor use conveys, subsequent studies showed that this preference for actually funny men over unfunny men was most apparent in long-term mating contexts and when the funny man was most attractive.”
Indeed, funny men were perceived as more intelligent and as having greater earning potential.
What questions still need to be addressed? The researcher said, “These preferences for humor quality were specific to men’s displays toward women. This work is based on the fact that men produce humor in mating domains while women evaluate it. Nonetheless, women can still use humor effectively in the attraction process.”
“Future research would benefit from specifically tasking men with evaluating successful and unsuccessful humor displays from women to determine how or whether the evaluation processes differ across sexes. Another limitation of these studies includes the content of the humor. Although we used (painstakingly!) normed jokes in these studies, the content was not necessarily standardized. Future work would benefit from experimentally manipulating the actual content of the humor to see if there are additive effects of topics for objectively funny humor. Stay tuned for that information from my lab…”
He added, “Allow me to make this a bit of a PSA against the naturalistic fallacy… Even though women are more likely to evaluate humor while men produce it, these are merely descriptive differences and not prescriptive. That is, I’m not saying that these sex differences should exist and be codified. People of either sex can be funny and judicious and group-level differences may not generalize to specific individuals.”
The research, “Whither the silly goose: Clarifying women’s preference for men’s successful humor displays across mating contexts and social affordance judgments”, was authored by Mitch Brown, Madeline R. Brown, and Zach Buckner.