Mary Louise Cowan and Anthony Little from the University of Stirling have just published one of the most comprehensive psychological investigations into the role of humour in flirting. The study explains why being funny is closely linked to being fancied.
Previous research on ads placed in Lonely hearts columns finds that men tend to offer a Good Sense of Humour (GSOH), while women are searching for it.
But why should science reveal wit to be so particularly attractive, above so many other characteristics?
Also why do psychologists disclose it makes a massive difference in the dynamics of flirting as to who is being funny, and who is doing the laughing - men or women?
Research has uncovered that laughing yourself, or trying to make someone express amusement, is a strong indicator of romantic interest. In other words, it is possible to gauge the degree to which someone desires us, by how much laughter is part of the banter.
Evolutionary theory argues what we find desirable is not accidental or mysterious - there must be some longer term pragmatic survival value to us, or our DNA. The theory is at an unconscious level we are drawn to characteristics that will help us pass on our genes.
So this explains why women prefer slightly older and taller men to themselves - in our ancestral environments experience and height were an advantage in a fight, and why men tend to prefer younger women - they are more likely to be fertile and bear children.
But there's nothing immediately amusing about the grim business of survival, is there?
Studies also suggest that being physically attractive means you are found more funny. In other words, you could think you're being attracted to someone because they make you laugh, when in fact - it's the fact you fancy them - which is getting you to giggle.
Knowing what is really happening in terms of why flirting and funny are so intimately connected, could improve 'mate selection'. After all, one reason agents which reduce inhibition such as alcohol or drugs are so popular as aids to flirting, is everyone seems to become more hilarious, with this assistance.
The latest research on attraction also confirms that men prefer women to be 'humour appreciators' rather than 'humour producers', while women favour men to be the one's producing the humour in the relationship.
University of New Mexico psychologist Professor Geoffrey Miller, in his book The Mating Mind, argues that humour is at the heart of flirtation because it's a key way women decide on the size of their favourite male organ - his brain.
Miller argues that the various mental challenges associated with being funny, for example it requires abstract thinking, appreciation of the audience's mind, highly advanced language skills and being creative, all means a good sense of humour reveals a really quick brain. Because it's tough to be funny and therefore rare, this becomes a demonstration of high genetic quality.
But many (possibly dimmer) men fail to grasp what women are really appreciating about humour - as they have an intuition that being funny is a useful 'pulling' strategy, so they scatter gun crude or sexual memorised jokes in their chat-up lines. These quips do not display genetic quality as ably as spontaneous wit, as psychologists Christopher Bale, Rory Morrison and Peter Caryl from the University of Edinburgh demonstrated in their study entitled, Chat-up lines as male sexual displays.
Their investigation, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, argued it's vital to distinguish wit (spontaneous jokes that ﬁt the context exactly, are genuinely funny, and require intelligence) from mere pre-planned jokes and one-liners which generally are ineffective on most women, and, do not demonstrate intelligence.
Mary Louise Cowan and Anthony Little from the University of Stirling aimed to resolve some of these conundrums in the links between funniness and flirting. They presented photographs, audio-only excerpts and video clips of participants spontaneously producing humour, and had these rated for funniness and attractiveness as both a long and short-term partner.
The study, entitled The effects of relationship context and modality on ratings of funniness found that if we are physically attracted to someone, we tend to find them funny, and therefore humour appears primarily to be about signalling romantic interest. If we already find someone attractive, and then we discover they are funny, our interest in them is cranked up.
The pattern of results, published in the journal 'Personality and Individual Differences' are that while both men and women are looking for comedy, there were some intriguing differences depending on whether you were in the market for a long term or short term relationship. Men liked women to be funny at the beginning of a relationship, because it indicated flirtatiousness and receptivity, perhaps particularly to a short term fling. While women preferred men to be humorous generally, the appeal of humour dropped off much more dramatically when they were considering the man for a longer term relationship.
If for both sexes being funny is strongly associated with being flirty, men's ﬂirtatiousness seems to more seriously reduce their appeal to women in the market for a longer term relationship. This might be because it creates an impression of not being serious, or willing to invest and commit in a mate.
So for both genders, being witty and appreciating humour is profoundly important in short term flings, but becomes less appealing as a longer term more serious connection is being considered, in particular, as women contemplate a droll man.
These and previous findings on humour and the heart suggest the optimal flirting strategy for a man would be to use humour at the early stages of a relationship to help 'hook' the woman, but to become more serious and less jokey as the relationship developed.
For women the optimal strategy would appear to be to find the man they are with hilarious, particularly at the beginning. For women they may want to analyse the nature of what is making them laugh - is it the man's quickness and ability to respond humorously to the situation they are in - or is he relying on pre-learned jokes and chat-up lines from the internet?
Bale, Morrison and Caryl in their study of chat-up lines wondered why men persisted in using so many 'chat-up' approaches that were rated as unpopular with so many women - such as boorish jokes, empty compliments, and sexually loaded remarks. They wondered if these strategies were never intended to impress a woman, but merely winnow out which possible 'targets' were in the mood for being the least fussy.
Psychologist Mary Louise Cowan, one of the authors of the most up to date research, speculates there would be little difference between heterosexual and homosexual preferences for humour in a romantic partner; these are adaptive genetic impulses we are predisposed to respond to, which would be quite robust, regardless of sexual orientation. Combined with the pleasure of having a humorous partner, and the fact that both sexes use humour to indicate interest when flirting, she suggests the findings from her experiments (conducted with Anthony Little), are likely to apply to both heterosexual and homosexual relationships.
So, both men and women, gay and straight, may want to consider the possibility that, particularly at the beginning of a relationship, it's because they are in the thrall of their dates due to physical attraction, is why everything they say now seems amusing. Once that initial desire begins to abate, how grating are those one-liners going to get?
It would, therefore, appear that in terms of being funny in flirtation, timing is everything.
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