This article has been excerpted from the book Humor’s Hidden Power: Weapon, Shield and Psychological Salve, by Nichole Force, M.A.
Have you ever wondered why class clowns are virtually always male? Documented differences in the ways the genders use and respond to humor explain this and other humor-related phenomena.
For example, research conducted by psychology professor Robert R. Provine at the University of Maryland in 1996 found that women who posted personal ads sought a partner who could make them laugh twice as frequently as they offered to be the source of humor. Men, however, offered to be the provider of humor a third more than they sought it in a partner.
Psychologists Eric R. Bressler and Sigal Balshine found that men expressed no preference for funny women, but that women tended to choose funnier men as partners. Rod A. Martin of the University of Western Ontario elaborated on this discrepancy between the preferences of the sexes when he said, “Although both sexes say they want a sense of humor, in our research women interpreted this as ‘someone who makes me laugh,’ and men wanted ‘someone who laughs at my jokes.’”
Bressler, Balshine and Martin conducted research in 2006 in which they asked subjects to choose between pairs of potential partners for a one-night stand, a date, a short-term relationship, a long-term relationship or friendship. In each pair, one partner was described as receptive to humor but not funny themselves, and the other partner was described as very funny, but not interested in the humorous remarks of others. In all scenarios except friendship, men chose women who would laugh at their jokes while women selected men who would make them laugh.
Evolutionary psychologists have theorized that a sense of humor is a sign of intellect and strong genes and that women, the more selective sex due to the burdens associated with pregnancy, are attracted to funny men because of the genetic benefit that could be bestowed upon potential offspring.
Humor and creativity researcher Scott Barry Kaufman of New York University believes this process, known as sexual selection, explains why the use of humor is important in the initial stages of a relationship: “When you have little else to go on, a witty person who uses humor in a clever, original way is signaling quite a lot of information, including intelligence, creativity, and even aspects of their personality such as playfulness and openness to experience.”
An interesting study that examined the desirability of funny men to ovulating women was conducted in 2006 by Geoffrey Miller of the University of New Mexico and Martie Haselton of the University of California, Los Angeles. The researchers had female subjects read descriptions of poor but creative men and wealthy but uncreative men and rate each man’s desirability. Miller and Haselton found that during times of high fertility, women chose poor creative men twice as often as wealthy uncreative men for short-term relationships. No preference was found for long-term relationships, however.
In addition to the attraction women feel toward funny men, men find women more attractive when they laugh. This could be due to the fact that laughter signifies enjoyment and interest, or connection and understanding — all desirable qualities in a potential mate.
Psychology professor Robert R. Provine of the University of Maryland observed social interaction in various public urban spaces while studying spontaneous conversation in 1993, ultimately recording 1,200 “laugh episodes” (comments that elicit a laugh from the speaker or listener). In examining the episodes, he found that women laugh significantly more than men, and that both men and women laugh more at men than at women. Although men consistently garner the most laughs, research has repeatedly shown men and women to be equally funny when it comes to humor production.