How Hot is Humor?

by Lucy M. Li | 2/4/16 7:03pm

Humor me, Dartmouth, would you?

Imagine that you’re sitting in your 2A class on a Tuesday afternoon and the professor has been lecturing for the past hour. As you look around the room, some students are starting to doze off, others are aggressively taking notes and a few people are eagerly asking convoluted questions that elicit vague answers from the professor.

Across the room, you make eye contact with a gorgeous guy or girl who caught your eye the very first day of class. You’ve exchanged a few “hi’s”and “how are you’s” outside of the class, and the physical attraction is there, but there isn’t much more than that.

However, to your right is the guy or girl who you’ve been sitting next to in class for the last four weeks. When they sat next to you the first day of class you weren’t dazzled right away, but then the two of you started talking and you realized that they always keep you smiling and laughing. They whisper jokes and witty remarks in your ear during lectures and you have to cover your face to keep from getting caught laughing aloud. You have the same sense of humor and you feel like you’re always on the same page. Or at least you always find yourself making fun of the same page of your textbook and elbowing one another. You even begin to look forward to your 2A now.

Who would you flitz? The gorgeous one who dazzled you with their looks, or the charismatic one who dazzled you with humor? Personally, I would choose the second one — I’d rather walk into a date knowing that I might be able to ward off the awkward nervousness with laughter. You’re almost guaranteed to have a good time.

Most people put humor pretty high on their list of characteristics that they look for in a romantic partner, so there seems to be a rather universal consensus that being funny is attractive. This begs the question — why are we attracted to funny people?

Perhaps the answer is simple. As psychology professor Todd Heatherton told me, humor takes us on the road to happiness.

“People like to be happy, so they like to be around people who make them happy,” Heatherton said.

Institute for writing and rhetoric professor Jonna Mackin , who teaches a class on comedy, said that we are drawn to humor because of its ability to make us feel comfortable in social situations.

“One reason we are attracted to funny people is because they make us feel better about social conflict,” Mackin said. “Whatever anxiety we might be feeling — about the presidential election or about a first date — just laughing at a joke will make us feel good.”

From a student’s perspective, Nick Cervenka ’19 agrees that humor can alleviate our social anxiety.

“It’s easier to break the ice,” Cervenka said. “First dates are way less awkward if someone is humorous.”

Because there seems to be a universal agreement that a sense of humor is an attractive quality to have, there must be a biological, evolutionary reason why we find humor to be an appealing quality in others. This made me wonder — is there something evolutionarily adaptive about humor? Over time, have our unfunny predecessors simply died out because they weren’t able to woo a mate with a knock-knock joke?

Mackin responded affirmatively, explaining that humor plays a role in alleviating social conflict as it diffuses negativity.

“[Humor] changes the terms for thinking about social conflict,” she said. “By making us feel better about a particular conflict, the joker attains a kind of power — thus attraction — by sharing that power over situations that we otherwise find uncomfortable.”

Perhaps for this reason, people seem to naturally gravitate away from awkward, uncomfortable or tense social situations and towards humorous and light-hearted settings.

Simone Schmid ’17 agreed that this is what makes humor an attractive quality — that people prefer to spend time with those who put them in a good mood.

“Humor makes situations less serious,” Schmid said. “Everyone wants to have a good time, so humor helps to lighten the situation.”

Cervenka expressed a similar sentiment, explaining that the lighthearted nature of humor is what draws him to humorous people.

“It’s easier to have a good time with people who have a good sense of humor, and you don’t have to worry about offending them all the time,” he said.

Sometimes it is hard to tell how far you can joke around with someone. Cervenka raised a good point ­­— we can tease and poke fun at funny people knowing that they won’t take offense to it. Plus, nothing sparks a romantic flame like flirtatious banter. People who can throw some gentle heat at each other with no hard feelings usually form a successful flirtationship that can possibly lead to more.

However, Mackin remarked that humorous flirtation is not always successful, as people have differing opinions on what is funny and what is not.

“Humor can be dangerous because it relies upon [an] agreement between the teller and the listener,” she said. “Without some shared values, intended humor could backfire and alienate the listener.”

Mackin added, though, that this can sometimes better indicate how well you get along with someone, and can play a huge part in creating attraction and chemistry between two people. If two people share a similar sense of humor, Mackin said, that can suggest they have a lot in common.

“I would say that the way humor works to recruit agreement and promote alliances can be very attractive, more attractive than other social judgments like appearance,” she said.

Most of us can’t deny that physical appearances definitely play role in determining our attraction towards others. This doesn’t make us shallow; it makes us human.

It made me wonder — beyond physical appearance and humor, what are other qualities do we find appealing in others?

Aamuktha Porika ’19 said that in addition to a sense of humor, compassion and kindness are attractive qualities.

Schmid said she appreciates personability, kindness and loyalty in others.

Cervenka said that for him, humor is definitely one of the most attractive characteristics someone can have, for the qualities that it often entails.

“I like outgoing people just because it’s easier to have conversations with them,” Cervenka said. “It’s less small talk, and I very much hate small talk. And loyalty, which takes longer to get to know in someone.”

How does humor compare to other attractive features?

Porika believes that humor can spark an interest, but might not necessarily be able to keep the flame burning.

"A sense of humor definitely starts an attraction but I don’t think it can really sustain it,” she said. “It would probably be a beginning stepping stone to other feelings and qualities.”

Schmid agrees that humor can’t tell us everything that we need to know about a person.

“It doesn’t describe the deepest characteristics,” she said. “I wouldn’t say that a person has to be funny, but I do enjoy being around someone who’s lighthearted and willing to crack jokes about themselves or others.”

Humor itself may not be the secret to understanding another person enough to sustain a long-lasting attraction or relationship, but it certainly provides a looking glass into a person’s more telling characteristics. Mackin believes that a person’s sense of humor can be reflective of other personal qualities.

“Jokes tell the truth about people,” she said. “It’s difficult to hide a mean spirit or kindness or intelligence with humor because jokes do social work by revealing the joker’s attitudes and attributes in unintended ways, and the same is true with the person who laughs at the joke.”

Likewise, Heatherton agrees that a sense of humor is often an indicator of other qualities.

“People are especially attracted to people who are warm, honest, truthful, trustworthy and intelligent,” he said. “People who are funny probably check the boxes for warmth and intelligence.”

We may simply be attracted to funny people because they already fit the other characteristics that we are attracted to.

Perhaps Cervenka sums up the most self-explanatory reason why for him, and for so many of us, humor is so attractive.

“It’s good to laugh,” he said.