Humour and human courtship: Testing predictions from sexual selection theory

Eric Rittman Bressler, McMaster University


Humour is ubiquitous in human social life, and has been studied for centuries. However, research focused on why we have evolved the ability to produce and appreciate humour has largely been ignored. To date only three Darwinian theories have been proposed to explain the existence of humour, and all require further testing. In this thesis I focused on one of these: Miller's theory that the ability to produce humour has conveyed information about an individual's genetic quality, and thus has evolved due to intersexual selection. I tested predictions derived from this theory using the methods of experimental psychology. ^ If humour evolved as a sexually selected trait, then theory predicts that the sexes will differ in their use of and attraction to humour. Specifically, theory predicts that men will produce humour more often, particularly in mating contexts, because male reproductive success is more positively related to the number of partners they can accrue than it is for women. Also it is expected that women will be more attracted to humourous partners than men, because of the higher costs women typically incur for mating with a low quality partner. I found that women were more attracted to humourous men, but men's mate choice was uninfluenced by women's humour production. I also found that women were most attracted to a partner's production of humour, while men were most attracted to a partner's receptivity to their own humour. Men and women also differed in the extent to which they reported producing humour in the presence of the opposite sex; men reported a greater increase in their use of humour around the opposite sex than did women. My experiments showed that people have particular expectations about humour producers and attribute humour to individuals with particular phenotypes. Participants attributed humourous statements to men rather than women more often than nonhumourous statements, and attributed humour to physically unattractive people more often than nonhumour. If humour evolved as a sexual signal then one might expect that perceptions of humour producers would be more positively influenced by the quality of humour than the quantity of humour produced. Ratings of the quality of humour produced (by men only) were positively correlated with ratings of attractiveness. However, ratings of frequency of humour production were negatively related to ratings of attractiveness. Taken together, these results cement our understanding of the importance of humour in interpersonal attraction and highlight how humour use differs between men and women. My results do not imply that sexual selection was the only force shaping our cognitive abilities to produce and appreciate humour. However, the thesis as a whole does provide support for the notion that the evolution of humour has been influenced by sexual selection. ^

Subject Area

Psychology, Experimental

Recommended Citation

Eric Rittman Bressler, "Humour and human courtship: Testing predictions from sexual selection theory" (January 1, 2006). ETD Collection for McMaster University. Paper AAINR20357.