What is humour for? Of all the explanations, among the better supported is the idea that it acts as a mating signal. Research with heterosexuals suggests that men, in particular, use humour to show-off their intelligence and good genes to women. A similar but alternative proposal is that wit is used by a male or female joker to convey their sexual interest to a person they find attractive. A new study finds some support for the latter theory, in that wittier people were seen as particularly attractive for a short-term fling.
In a departure from the field’s reliance on questionnaires, Mary Cowan and Anthony Little used real spontaneous humour, which they created by recording 40 undergrad psychology students (20 men) as they explained to camera which two items they’d take to a desert island, and why, choosing from: chocolate, hairspray, or a plastic bag. These “actor” participants weren’t told that the study was about humour, but nonetheless 19 of them gave the appearance of trying to be funny in their answers.
Next, 11 “rater” participants (5 men) were played audio recordings of the actors’ explanations, and their task was to rate them for funniness, and to rate the attractiveness of each actor for a short-term relationship (dates and one-night stands) and for a long-term relationship. After scoring the audio, the rater participants did the same for a simple head-shot photo of each actor, and then again for the full video version of their explanations.
A key result is that attractive actors (based on the rating of their photo) were judged to be funnier in the video than in the audio, which suggests their physical attractiveness led them to be considered more funny.
Wit also boosted attractiveness. Across audio, photo and video, men who were considered funnier also tended to be considered more attractive for both short and long-term relationships, but especially short term. The link between perceived funniness and attractiveness was not so strong for the female actors, although funniness did still go together with higher perceived attractiveness for short-term relationships. A follow-up study found that funniness ratings were very similar to ratings for perceived flirtatiousness, and that this perceived flirtatiousness explained the link between funniness and appeal for a fling.
Male wit may be more attractive for shorter rather than longer relationships, the researchers surmised, “because it nurtures an impression of not being serious or willing to invest in a mate.” Female wit, on the other hand, may be perceived by men as attractive for short-term relationships because it is taken as a sign that “that she will be receptive to his advances.”
The use of authentic humorous displays is to be applauded, but the study is hamstrung by several weaknesses. Above all, the sample of rater participants was tiny. Also, the attractiveness ratings all tended to be low. This may be because the male and female raters (no information about their sexual orientation is given) were asked to judge the attractiveness of both men and women. For a study about people’s judgements of attractiveness in a relationship context, it also seemed strange that no information was given about the gender and attractiveness of the researchers, who may have inadvertently influenced the participants’ behaviour and judgments.
Cowan, M., and Little, A. (2013). The effects of relationship context and modality on ratings of funniness. Personality and Individual Differences, 54 (4), 496-500 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2012.10.020