My colleagues and I recently had a paper, “Sex-differences during humor appreciation in child-sibling pairs,” published in the journal Social Neuroscience. The gist of our work was that girls' and boys' brains respond differentially to funny versus positive (enjoyable to watch but non-funny) movie clips. Shortly after its appearance, stories began to circulate on the Internet with titles such as: “Women prefer funny guys, it’s scientifically proven." As our study was performed in children, we were initially surprised by these comments. But on further thought, we realized that while speculative, this interpretation deserves comment.
A good sense of humor is an important human-mate preference worldwide. But why is it that humor ranks so high amongst other desirable mate characteristics? And why should humor serve as a tool for choosing a mate, particularly for women?
Sexual selection theory in mammals suggests that females, as compared to males, invest more time and energy in childbearing and parenting. Therefore, females are more restricted than males in the number of offspring they can conceive. This restriction normally entails higher selectivity during mate selection in females, as they prioritize quality, rather than quantity, of offspring.
One consequence of this theory, when applied to humans, is that men compete for women’s attention. 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. Humor does not equate to just “being funny;" it is associated with more complex characteristics such as creativity, intelligence, resilience and social skills. By selecting men with a good sense of humor, women may be more likely to choose mates who are witty, smart, adaptive and socially talented.
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. Combined with previous adult research from our lab, our new findings provide very preliminary neuroimaging evidence of sex-differences related to humor evaluation versus production. One possible neural mechanism may be related to reward expectation, a finding discussed in our paper.
As we pointed out in our paper, this study had relatively small group sizes and was in children, and as such, more research at many levels is needed to elaborate on the theoretical relations among humor, sex, and mate selection.
Pascal Vrticka, PhD, is a postdoctoral scholar in Stanford's Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research. Center director Allan Reiss, MD, was senior author of the paper discussed here.