I like to make people laugh. I’m especially funny (I think) when women are around. So, what’s with that?
Frankly, I don’t know why I like to make women laugh. Surprisingly, the neuroscience community seems mildly confused as well. I’ve been reading up on humor as a window into how our brains work. One aspect is that men and women view and use humor differently. But not, perhaps, in the ways you expect.
Here’s what I’ve discovered so far. (Unless noted otherwise, these little gems come from Scott Weems’ book, Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why).
Quantity – women laugh more than men. Weems estimates that women laugh roughly 125 percent more than men.
Aging – women tend to laugh less as they get older. Men not so much. Does it ever even out? We need another study to find out.
Time of day – both men and women laugh more in the afternoon and evening than they do in the morning. This could be related to Immoral Afternoons.
Humor appreciation (1) – men enjoy put-down humor more than women. But this assertion is disputed. Women don’t like put-down jokes about women. When you take these out the mix, men and women are roughly the same.
Humor appreciation (2) – men like dirty jokes more than women. Again, this is disputed. Many dirty jokes make fun of women. When you factor these out, the differences evaporate.
Shared values – people tend to bond (romantically and otherwise) with other people who have similar values. How do you know if someone shares your values? Humor may be the fastest way. Men and women both use humor as a way to gauge values and degree of fit.
Humor and mateability – men and women both value humor in a mate in America, at least. American women rated intelligence as the most desirable trait in a mate; humor finished a close second. (The two are highly related). For American men, the top three traits were intelligence, good looks, and humor. But, as Weems points out, it’s different in Siberia. There, the most desired traits revolve around dependability – including faithfulness and reliability. It’s almost like Maslow’s hierarchy – if your mate is not dependable, it doesn’t much matter if he or she is funny.
Mate selection – if you ask happily married couples why they were attracted to each other, the women often say, “He made me laugh”. The men often say, “She laughed at my jokes”. In other words, men’s humor is essentially the same as a peacock’s display. Apparently, these differences exist even in young children. Perhaps this is why so many class clowns are boys.
Laughers and listeners – in general, “… people tend to laugh more when they are speaking as opposed to listening.” The lone exception? “… when a man is talking to a woman, the woman laughs more than the man.” Perhaps she’s responding to the peacock display.
Humor production – while men and women seem similar in humor appreciation, they differ in humor production. In a study cited by Christie Nicholson, women preferred men “…who could make them laugh twice as often as they returned the favor. Men, on the other hand, offered humor about a third more than they requested it.” It’s all about mate selection. (Isn’t everything?)
Relationship maintenance – it’s not just mate selection, its also mate maintenance. According to Weems, “Nine out of ten couples say that humor is an important part of their relationship. …. laughing together is essential for marital success.”
So, what’s it all mean? Perhaps Christie Nicholson sums it up best, “A genuine laugh is one of the most honest ways to convey: I’m with you.”