Humour as a Sexually Selected Trait

This entry was written by Claire Sheridan as part of a project done in BIAN 2133 ‘Human Reproductive Strategies’ at The Australian National University in 2019 Semester 2.


Humour is often seen as a desired trait in a partner, and research has shown that there may be an evolutionary function underlying this desirable trait (Hall, 2015). Humour production, recognition and appreciation is comparable across cultures and is present in most human interactions (Li, 2009). Humour is thought to be a marker of high intelligence, creativity and genetic quality, while also allowing individuals to start and maintain social relationships (Klasios, 2013). As well as this, humour is associated with human mating behaviours, and the use of humour in courtship behaviours differs strongly between males and females (Bressler, Martin and Balshine, 2006). This essay will explore the role humour plays in courtship behaviours as both a fitness and an interest indicator, and significantly, the differences in the way that humour production and appreciation is rated between sexes.

Main Text

Humour as a Fitness Indicator

The theory of Sexual Selection explains that some traits may be selected for due to their appeal to a prospective mate (Wilbur and Campbell, 2011). The evolution of humour in humans is a strong example of this. Though a seemingly unnecessary trait, it may have been selected for due to its use in indicating high intelligence, creativity, strong communication skills and warmth of an individual to prospective partners (Bressler, Martin and Balshine, 2006). Evidence shows that dating advertisements which emphasis self-perceived abilities at humour production also highlighted self-perceived intelligence (Wilbur and Campbell, 2011). As a fitness indicator, attraction to a partner would develop as a result of a humorous display (Klasios, 2013). Following this, sexual selection favoured females who recognised and appreciated humour, while males who produced humour were awarded greater fitness benefits (Hall, 2015).

Though both sexes value humour in a potential partner, they do this in slightly different ways. Males are under higher selection pressure to possess and display qualities that are desirable to prospective partners (Hone, Hurwitz and Lieberman, 2015). As humour is seen as a desired trait, males are more frequently recorded to emphasis their sense of humour to signal to prospective mates their high genetic quality (Wilbur and Campbell, 2011). Due to this, Bressler, Martin and Balshine (2006) note that for males, a woman is more likely to be found attractive if she has the ability to appreciate their humour, rather than producing humour herself. Therefore, rather than selecting for humour production, recognition and appreciation equally, males are under higher selective pressure to display humour in courtship behaviours than females (Hone, Hurwitz and Lieberman, 2015).

If humour is sexually-selected for in males, then it follows that there would be an associated trait for recognising humorous behaviour in females (Hone, Hurwitz and Lieberman, 2015). In contrast to this, women rated humour production much higher than men did, regardless of relationship type. Bressler, Martin and Balshine (2006) reported that females rate the ability to be funny, and appreciate other people’s humour, equally. However, the phrase ‘humour appreciation’ denotes almost passive, indiscriminate recognition of male humour displays (Wilbur and Campbell, 2011). Wilbur and Campbell (2011) explain that women evaluate rather than just appreciate humour, which is what allows them to select the best possible suitor. This more accurately aligns with the fact that women invest more in parenting and therefore, must be more critical when selecting a prospective mate to ensure they carry desired traits (Hone, Hurwitz and Lieberman, 2015).

Humour as an Interest Indicator

Interestingly, Li (2009) offers a different view on the role of humour. Rather than being an indicator of fitness, Li (2009) list humour as an ‘interest indicator’ for initiating and maintaining social relationships. This allows the role of humour to be used and observed outside normal courtship behaviour and employed in day-to-day social interactions. Therefore, rather than humour being the cause of attraction, humour as an ‘interest indicator’ maintains that the attraction between two people already exists and humour is used as a tool to communicate and initiate this attraction (Li 2009). Furthermore, humour if often seen as a more effective, and potentially safer, signalling tool than other intelligence indicators as it allows an individual to subtly signal interest without having to face the harsh rejection that could follow other, more direct methods of signalling (Wilbur and Campbell, 2011). Due to this, you would expect that males and females would express the ability to be funny and appreciate another person’s humour equally. However, other evidence has shown that this is not necessarily the case (Wilbur and Campbell, 2011). The article by Li (2009), and several other significant works completed since then, demonstrate how these two potentially differing views on the role humour plays in human courtship are complimentary to each other.

Rather than working against humour as a fitness indicator, theories of humour being used a signalling tool extend and compliment the way humour is used in mating behaviours. Wilbur and Campbell’s (2011) article builds on the work of Li (2009) showing that men will more frequently produce humour at the early stages of the courtship process to indicate their interest to potential female partners, while females are more likely to partake in humour evaluation during this time. In this way, the role of humour as both a fitness and interest indicator should be seen as complimentary processes within human courtship behaviours.


Evidence shows that the production, recognition and evaluation of humour is not only an indicator of fitness, but also signals interest between males and females in courtship behaviours. Males tend to highlight their own humour production and preference humour recognition and appreciation in prospective female partners (Hone, Hurwitz and Lieberman, 2015). On the other hand, women equally preference humour production in prospective partners as well as humour recognition and appreciation (Bressler, Martin and Balshine, 2006). This evidence is further complimented through research of humour as a signalling tool, where males tend to use humour to initiate and maintain relationships with prospective females (Li, 2009; Wilbur and Campbell, 2011).

Reference List

Bressler, E.R., Martin, R.A. and Balshine, S. (2006). Production and appreciation of humour as sexually selected traits. Evolution and Human Behaviour, 27, 121-130.

Hall, J.A. (2015). Sexual Selection and Humour in Courtship: A Case for Warmth and Extroversion. Evolutionary Psychology, 13, 3, 1-10.

Hone, L.S.E., Hurwitz, W. and Lieberman, D. (2015). Sex Differences in Preferences for Humour: A Replication, Modification and Extension. Evolutionary Psychology, 13, 1, 167-181.

Klasios, J. (2013). Cognitive Traits as Sexually Selected Fitness Indicators. Review of General Psychology, 17, 4, 428-442.

Li, N.P., Griskevicius, V., Durante, K.M., Jonason, P.K., Pasisz, D.J and Aumer, K. (2009). An Evolutionary Perspective on Humour: Sexual Selection or Interest Indication? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 7, 923-926.

Wilbur, C.J. and Campbell, L. (2011). Humour in Romantic Contexts: Do Men Participate and Women Evaluate? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 7, 918-929.

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