This blog post first appeared on http://thepeoplesscience.org/ on October 29, 2016.
A good sense of humor is a highly valued human mate preference worldwide. If people are asked to rate the importance of various traits of a potential partner, humor is often found at, or near the top of their list. Humor sometimes ranks even higher than physical attractiveness. Combined with previous research in adults, new functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data from children published in a recent paper by Michelle Neely, Elizabeth Walter Shelly, Jessica Black, Allan Reiss and I, could provide some preliminary clues on how humor relates to human mate selection.
Humor is a prototypical positive social human state. It is thought to have evolved from a basic safety and play signal, and is associated with smiling and laughter, two powerful and contagious social gestures. Not surprisingly, humor is known to act as a social glue, facilitating the initiation and maintenance of social relationships. Humor has also been found to have positive effects on physical and psychological wellbeing, probably because it offers a way for dissolving pent up stress and regulating negative emotions. Furthermore, humor has been associated with creativity and intelligence. This comes from the fact that both humor production and evaluation require the ability to combine two or more otherwise incompatible or incongruent elements. A good sense of humor therefore does not just equate to “being funny”; it could also indicate good social skills, resilience, as well as creativity and intelligence.
According to sexual selection theory, mate selection in mammals – including humans – is characterized by males competing for females’ attention. Because females invest more time and energy in childbearing and parenting, they are more restricted than males in the number of offspring they can conceive. As a consequence, females are highly selective in their mate choice. And here is where humor may come into play. Humor could serve as a mate selection tool because it provides women with information about men’s mating quality beyond what meets the eye. In turn, it gives men the opportunity to display their social skills, resiliency, creativity and intelligence in an agreeable and entertaining way.
Finally, if humor is one tool for selecting a potential mate, women’s and men’s brains could have evolved differentially to make use of this mechanism. Specifically, women’s brains may have developed a predisposition for evaluating humor, while men’s brains may have developed a different predisposition for producing humor. Our fMRI data from adults and more recently young children (ages 6-13) provides first preliminary evidence for such different predispositions in humor as a function of sex. A potential underlying neural mechanism might be related to reward anticipation. It appears that girls and women are less in a reward anticipation mode, which could make their brains better suited for evaluating humor.
Although our findings on sex-differences during humor processing are promising, many open questions remain. For example, we still do not know whether such results hold true for different kinds of humor. It is also likely that there are differences in humor processing related to cultural learning, which calls for cross-cultural studies on humor processing. And we are still in the need of more direct evidence for associations between brain activity during humor processing and measures of creativity, intelligence, and resilience. Future research will hopefully soon provide additional information on these and other open questions.