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Make ‘Em Laugh

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 3, 2012

The  Guardian has an article about laughter, excerpted from Robert Provine’s book Curious Behavior, and this section about gender differences caught my eye:

On average, men are the best laugh getters. These differences are already present by the time joking first appears, around six years of age. Based on this evidence, it is no surprise that your school clown was probably a male, a worldwide pattern. Laughter is sexy. Women laughing at men are responding to more than their prowess in comedy. Women are attracted to men who make them laugh (ie, “have a good sense of humour”), and men like women who laugh in their presence.

The next time you are at a party, use laughter as a guide to what people really feel about each other – and you. Laughter is a particularly informative measure of relationships because it is largely unplanned, uncensored and hard to fake. Men and women mindlessly and predictably act out our species’ biological script. A man surrounded by attentive, laughing females is obviously doing something right, and he will comply by continuing to feed his admirers whatever triggers their laughter. Such good-humoured fellows don’t need a big supply of jokes – their charisma carries the day. Laughter is not, however, a win-win signal for males and females; if it is used carelessly, you can laugh your way out of a relationship or a job.

Repulsive? Oh, Susan, you must be joking

The asymmetrical power of laughter and comedy for men and women is noted by comedian Susan Prekel, who bemoans that men in her audience will “find me repulsive, at least as a sexual being”. In contrast, “male comics do very well with women”.

Personal ads provide a direct approach to the value of laughter, because people spell out their virtues and desires in black and white. Laughter and humour are highly valued in the sexual marketplace. In 3,745 personal ads published by heterosexual males and females in eight US national newspapers on 28 April 1996, men offered “sense of humour” (or “humorous”) and women requested it. Women couldn’t care less whether their ideal male partner laughs or not – they want a male who makes them laugh. Women sought humour more than twice as often as they offered it. The behavioural economics of such bids and offers is consistent with the finding that men are attracted to women who laugh in their presence. Without such a balance between bids and offers, there would be no market for laughter and humour, and the currency of these behaviours would decline.


2 Responses to “Make ‘Em Laugh”

  1. hanmeng said

    Laughter is hard to fake? I’d like to see some evidence of that. On the contrary, I see certain women as faking laughter just as they fake interest or otherwise flatter men they seek as partners. Or prey.

    • Prey may be a little strong. But the point about laughter being hard to fake is interesting. You know it’s hard to fake a genuinely happy smile, which engages certain muscles at the corners of the eyes and causes crinkling. But I would think laughter would be easy to fake, in the sense that it’s a highly contagious activity, and when you pretend to laugh, you soon end up laughing for real.

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