Humor Study Is Funny Peculiar

This week, Scicurious and I are tandem blogging her Friday Weird Science paper. This one just had a bit too much weird for one person.

Point and Laugh
Heh. Heh. Heh.

A summer school theater teacher of mine from way back claimed to long for a unique career. He wanted to be a stand-up comedian for preschoolers. There were just one or two little problems. The kids don’t have a lot of disposable income to spend on entertainment, and the parents weren’t going to pony up for a grown man standing in front of a bunch of kids saying, “Pee-pee. Caca,” no matter how much the kids were, well, peeing themselves with laughter.
My teacher understood humor at its most basic, and he would laugh his ass off if he were to read a recent evolutionary psychology paper on the topic, “Humor ability reveals intelligence, predicts mating success, and is higher in males.” If he didn’t have one of those common names that makes a person impossible to catch up with, I’d send it to him. It’s the sort of evo psych paper that ignores everything we know about inheritance, almost everything we know about the topic being studied, and much of what we know about sex to say, “Look! Correlation! Thus…selection!”

The researchers, Gil Greengross and Geoffrey Miller, wanted to know whether women mention liking funny men in personal ads because of their genes. More specifically, they wanted to know whether women used humor as a proxy for intelligence in selecting mates. They obtained ratings of 400 U.S. college students’ capacity for humor by having them write captions for three cartoons and creating an index of funny using the top-rated caption for each cartoon for each participant. They also got nosy (for science!) about the students’ sex lives with ten questions they turned into another index.


I reprint the questions here because I wouldn’t want to deprive any readers of the same fun I had playing higher/lower with the answers. Also, I have to question the usefulness of “Likely number of sex partners in the next 5 years.” I mean, I appreciate that the guys are so confident, but that doesn’t make them right. Still, the researchers got an index. The fact that they named it “mating success” instead of “promiscuity” (as I’ll refer to it from here on out) is disturbing, especially since they found that their index correlated with pro-promiscuity attitudes but not with, say, having children, which they didn’t measure.

They crunched all the numbers and discovered…that humor ability wasn’t correlated with mating success in either men or women.

Yes, really, despite the title of the paper, there was not a statistically significant direct relationship between humor and promiscuity. They also found that intelligence was not statistically significantly related to promiscuity, except for a relationship between vocabulary size (they also tested spatial ability) and promiscuity in women only. However, they did find that humor mediated the relationship between intelligence measures and promiscuity in both men and women.

From this they built the title and argument of the paper: “This study confirmed three predictions derived from a sexual selection model of humor (Miller, 2000): intelligence predicts humor ability, humor ability predicts mating success, and males show higher average humor ability. Further, structural equation models showed that humor ability strongly mediates the positive effects of intelligence on mating success, suggesting that intelligence may be sexually attractive mainly insofar as it is manifest through verbal humor.”

One problem, of course, is that the second of these was simply not true. Promiscuity was correlated only with vocabulary and age in women and uncorrelated with any other measure in men. A misstatement this blatant would shock me in any journal other than Intelligence. It was so bad, I had to check with Scicurious to make sure I wasn’t just seeing things.

The third point, that men showed a higher humor ability (and intelligence), doesn’t contain the caveat that the panel of humor judges were two-thirds men. Any socialized gender differences in humor preferences could bias the ratings toward the male participants. There are also issues with generalizing from a college sample to the population as a whole when talking about gender. The ability of men to find living-wage industrial jobs without an education means that colleges contain a different range of intellectual interests and abilities in men than they do in women.

Even the first point, that intelligence predicts humor ability, has its troublesome aspects. This model proposes that humor is used in (particularly female) mate selection as an indicator of intelligence, rather than as a valuable asset in its own right. Yet the authors of the study cite two papers that note that women rate humorous men as less intelligent or intellectual–without mentioning that these papers contain findings that contradict their thesis.

two young girls laughing behind another girls back
Transgressing against the "other."

All three points that the authors claim to confirm are problematic, and that’s before we even take a good look at the main topic of the paper: humor. Those who study the social function of humor understand that one of its main characteristics is transgression.* Humor solidifies group boundaries by transgressing against the “other” in a way that wouldn’t be acceptable among group members. Insult humor (“Yo mama,” etc.) crosses bounds of both taste and realism. Self-deprecating humor works in high-status individuals because we don’t expect them to undercut their own status. Puns violate our expectations for the consistent meaning of words. Small children laugh at the mention of bodily excretions because they know no one is supposed to talk about them. Humor transgresses.

So does promiscuity in our Puritan-derived U.S. society. There are strong overt messages aimed at young people urging them to abstain from sex. There are more covert messages judging them for wanting, engaging in, and enjoying sex. The researchers themselves found this, when they discovered that pro-promiscuity attitudes were negatively correlated with a set of statements endorsing the social pronouncements of conservative religion. Those participants who were in favor of promiscuity were transgressing against the loudest “moral” voice of our times.

Even if all the points of the sexual selection model of humor were clearly confirmed, this shared transgressive nature of sex and humor would be a problem for the claims of this paper. People of higher status risk less by transgressing. Their status protects them from many of the consequences of breaking the rules. Those of higher status tend to score more highly on “intelligence” measures. They also tend to be male.

Taken all together, that means that every association in this paper that the researchers ascribe to sexual selection can also be explained by relative levels of social transgression. When you think about it, that’s pretty funny. Too bad it’s not “funny ha-ha.”


*This would be why the only people who find racist, sexist, classist, homo- and trans-phobic, etc. jokes remotely funny are the ones who’ve convinced themselves that standing with hegemony is an act of unspeakable courage.

Don’t forget to read Scicurious’s take on this paper as well. If nothing else, she’s much funnier than I am.

Greengross, G., & Miller, G. (2011). Humor ability reveals intelligence, predicts mating success, and is higher in males Intelligence, 39 (4), 188-192 DOI: 10.1016/j.intell.2011.03.006

Li, N., Griskevicius, V., Durante, K., Jonason, P., Pasisz, D., & Aumer, K. (2009). An Evolutionary Perspective on Humor: Sexual Selection or Interest Indication? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35 (7), 923-936 DOI: 10.1177/0146167209334786

LUNDY, D., TAN, J., & CUNNINGHAM, M. (1998). Heterosexual romantic preferences: The importance of humor and physical attractiveness for different types of relationships Personal Relationships, 5 (3), 311-325 DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-6811.1998.tb00174.x

“Point and laugh” by Ross Pollock. Some rights reserved.
“two young girls laughing behind another girls back” by studiostoer. Some rights reserved.

Humor Study Is Funny Peculiar
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10 thoughts on “Humor Study Is Funny Peculiar

  1. 2

    I’d argue that that the defining characteristic of humor is surprise rather than transgression. It’s a matter of emphasis, perhaps, since surprise is evidence that expectations have been transgressed, but even sexual humor is often more silly than shocking.

    To the degree that humor is a performance art, as joke telling certainly is, it’s to be expected that a few will be highly skilled and the rest inept. Historically, such skills have been reserved to men, and now that they aren’t we’re finding out what we’ve been missing.

  2. 3

    I would argue that surprise isn’t a requirement for humor, but that the transgression is. Haven’t you ever sat through a joke with a big smile on your face, knowing exactly where it was going and just waiting for it to get there? It’s still funny, but there’s no surprise there. Nor are we surprised when we’re laughing at our own jokes.

    But beyond that, humor is a social phenonmenon, and while transgression serves multiple social purposes, surprise doesn’t serve any that I know of.

  3. 4

    Just for fun…

    Vanity Fair article :- Why Women Aren’t Funny

    What makes the female so much deadlier than the male? With assists from Fran Lebowitz, Nora Ephron, and a recent Stanford-medical-school study, the author investigates the reasons for the humor gap. by Christopher Hitchens

    Vanity Fair article :- Who Says Women Aren’t Funny?

    The idea that women aren’t funny—and which male said that? —seems pretty laughable these days. TV has unleashed a new generation of comediennes, who act, perform stand-up, write, and direct—dishing out the jokes with a side of sexy. Annie Leibovitz photographs a dozen of the wittiest dames in showbiz, from 30 Rock’ s Tina Fey to Sarah Silverman, to S.N.L.’ s current stars, while the author learns why the setup has changed. by Alessandra Stanley

    Vanity Fair YouTube video :- Why Women Still Aren’t Funny

    Christopher Hitchens rebuts Alessandra Stanley’s essay, “Who Says Women Aren’t Funny?”

  4. 5

    Being smart doesn’t help unless you’re funny actually rings kinda true.
    That is, there are lots of types of intelligence that don’t manifest themselves as pro-social behavior. Humor would be one that *does*, at least generally.

  5. 7

    Favorite part: “Times had intercourse with two or more other partners in the same 24 hour period; Males: .66, Females: .24” Just curious about the SD on the guys 1.55 (wtf??)

    Also, I’m kind of in love with the argument that they’re making (I assume), which is that (unless this is not supposed a representative population?) 20% of the girls are sleeping with 60% (+/- 150% lol) of the guys (in the same 24 hr period). Niceee job, authors, calling them both unfunny AND slutty.

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