By Christie Nicholson
Article published in The Montreal Gazette, Intelligencer Journal, The Arizona Republic and other papers in the U.S. and Canada.
A sense of humor equals sex appeal, but men and women differ on what’s so funny. New research explains why a witty quip and that infectious giggle are so attractive.
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When comedian Susan Prekel takes to the stage and spots a good-looking man in the audience, her heart sinks.
“If there was a chance he’d find me attractive, as soon as I’m on stage it’s over,” she said. After doing hundreds of shows, Prekel says she can remember only one time when a man asked for her number after seeing her perform.
Male comedians, on the other hand, get plenty of fan crushes and phone numbers. “I see it all the time,” Prekel said.
It’s not that she isn’t funny, or unattractive. Prekel, a 6-foot brunette in her 30s, has appeared on Comedy Central and is a regular on the New York comedy circuit. Of course men enjoy funny women, she said, but they don’t see them as sexy, in the same way women see funny men as sexy.
Recent research on humor has revealed a surprising explanation for that difference. Although men and women both say a sense of humor is critical to attraction, what they mean by “sense of humor” is, in fact, completely different.
“In our research, women said they wanted ’someone who makes me laugh,’ and men said they wanted ’someone who laughs at my jokes,’” said Rod Martin, president of the International Society for Humor Studies and co-author of a study on the topic published this year in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior.
Martin’s work is part of an emerging body of research on humor. Scientists are exploring how subtle courtship cues revealed through humor can foster love.
“Humor studies are finally starting to get traction,” said Martie Haselton, associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It was considered a frivolous topic, but the research is showing that humor is playing a surprising and important role in human relationships, perhaps as important as physical attraction.”
Ellen Bennett, 31, an account manager for a news magazine, said that when it comes to attraction she thinks women who are funny are cursed. Bennett is a 5-foot-10-inch brunette with a curvaceous body. Those who know her also agree: She’s very funny.
“Why does the giggling bimbo get more attention than me?” she asked. “I can talk to a man with intelligence and wit. What does she do? She gives a coy look, flips her hair and with a jovial ha-ha-ha, stares into his eyes and says, ‘You’re so funny.’” This approach, Bennett observes, is almost always more popular with men.
Many men agree that women who appreciate their humor are the ones they’re attracted to.
“Male egos are delicate; if she laughs it makes it a lot more comfortable,” said David Porras, a 33-year-old advertising producer. “I see right away if there is a connection, that she is interested.”
Porras said he enjoys women who are witty and funny, but he sees them more as buddies than potential lovers.
Scientists say one possible explanation for this difference in male-female roles is based in the human drive to pass ones’ genes on to the next generation.
George Miller, professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico, argues that for men, the interest from a reproductive standpoint is to seduce a woman. So abundant signals that say “I like you” can be far more important to a man than the enjoyment he may get from a woman cracking her own jokes.
Women, on the other hand, tend to be interested in men who have traits that will help their offspring survive. Scientists point to the nine-month investment required of women who give birth as naturally making them the pickier sex. They say women, without being aware of it, are looking for high-quality genes in a mate. Funny men are attractive because humor is considered an indicator of both intelligence and creativity, Miller wrote in a recent paper. And intelligence is a sign of healthy genes, according to Miller’s research.
This difference between men and women in terms of what is attractive is considered another classic example of mating rituals in the animal kingdom, where males display and females evaluate.
“At least initially, women notice humor–to find out what a man’s underlying characteristics are below the physical appearance, what’s inside him, how intelligent and creative he is,” said Martie Haselton, who with Miller wrote a paper about women’s fertility and attraction to creative men, published in Human Nature this year.
Regardless of whether genetic forces are at work, many agree it’s the connection that humor fosters that makes it so good for relationships, especially over the long term.
“In order for me to fall in love with someone, I have to find him funny,” said Julia Lintern, a 32-year-old clothing designer. “A funny man can get outside of himself, and be creative in the ways he pulls me in. If we laugh, it means we get each other.”
Humor and laughter often communicate something much deeper than the appreciation of a joke. Robert Provine, author of “Laughter: A Scientific Investigation,” said that 90 percent of the things we laugh at aren’t even remotely funny.
“Most laughter is not about jokes,” he explained. “It’s about relationships between people.” Laughing says more about how someone feels toward another person; it’s an indicator of how much they like, trust or agree with that person, Provine said.
In long-term relationships, humor often becomes a private language between two people. Just a knowing look across the room can make a mundane moment hilarious. Bennett, the account manager, fondly remembers moments like these with an ex-boyfriend.
“It might seem superficial to someone watching from the outside,” Bennett said, “but for the two people laughing there is a great deal of intimacy.”
Others observe that humor can turn an awkward conflict into something comfortable and surprisingly honest. It provides immediate relief, like opening a window in a stifling hot room.
“Breaking the tension by laughing is better than throwing a glass against the wall,” said Gale Torrisi, a playwright in her 40s who has been married for 15 years.
Humor can also turn little annoyances and pet peeves into something more than just things to endure–thus extending the staying power of a relationship.
“You might joke about the little things a person does, like how they yawn or the shoes they wear,” said Riccardo Vecchio, a 36-year-old artist. “It kind of makes you love them all the more.”
Of course there needs to be a balance of when, and how much, humor should come into a relationship. Here, the latest research offers a cautionary note.
Martin, the humor researcher, is finding that couples are more likely to break up if one partner is really funny and the other is unsatisfied in the relationship. In this situation, humor only makes the problem worse.
“This is particularly so with men’s humor where they use it to avoid serious conversations or problems,” Martin said.
It’s important that humor be used judiciously, Martin added. Self-deprecating humor or put-down teasing, especially delivered at the wrong time, is simply too much.
If couples don’t “get” each other in the beginning, the mismatch in humor is likely to create problems over the long haul, he said.
Vecchio said he has learned–the hard way–when it is safe to poke fun.
“I can read it in her face very quickly,” he said with a nervous chuckle, “that it is time to be serious.”