Can evolution help you understand humor?

While attending the International Society for Humor Studies conference last week, I had a chance to meet Gil Greengross of the University of New Mexico. He is an an evolutionary psychologist and anthropologist, and I asked him the question:

How can evolution help us understand humor?

His answer is a an interesting one. Importantly, he highlights the two places where you might find a connection between humor and evolution. One is natural selection and the other is sexual selection. His research focuses on the latter, asking when and why men might be funnier than women as a tool to enhance the likelihood of mating. You can debate whether men and women differ in their humor production and appreciation, but no matter your conclusion, the realm of dating/mating seems to be the place to look because of the differences in gender goals – at least according to the tenants of evolutionary psychology.


Greengross and Miller. Humor ability reveals intelligence, predicts mating success, and is higher in males. Intelligence vol. 39 (2011) p 188-192.

A good sense of humor is sexually attractive, perhaps because it reveals intelligence, creativity, and other ‘good genes’ or ‘good parent’ traits. If so, intelligence should predict humor production ability, which in turn should predict mating success. In this study, 400 university students (200 men and 200 women) completed measures of abstract reasoning (Raven’s Advanced Progressive Matrices), verbal intelligence (the vocabulary subtest of the Multidimensional Aptitude Battery), humor production ability (rated funniness of captions written for three cartoons), and mating success (from the Sexual Behaviors and Beliefs Questionnaire). Structural equation models showed that general and verbal intelligence both predict humor production ability, which in turn predicts mating success, such as lifetime number of sexual partners. Also, males showed higher average humor production ability. These results suggest that the human sense of humor evolved at least partly through sexual selection as an intelligence-indicator.

He talks more about his paper in his psychology today blog: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/humor-sapiens/201105/laughing-all-the-way-the-bedroom

And here you can find a critique of the paper: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-decision-tree/201107/are-men-funnier-women