More than ‘just a joke’: An evolutionary psychologist’s guide to appreciating humour.


As Valentine’s Day fast approaches, Dr. Mary Louise Cowan, who completed her PhD in Psychology at the University of Stirling, considers the role of humour in our relationships, and provides us with a timely, evidence-based guide to using it to our advantage.

Dr. Mary Cowan is a Teaching Fellow in the Department of Psychology, Goldsmiths, University of London.

 It’s difficult to imagine what life would be like if we had never evolved one of our most prized skills; our sense of humour. Perhaps never hearing a “knock knock” joke or wondering why that chicken did cross the road would be no great loss, but life would be a lot quieter if we never exchanged a funny word or a laugh. Humour appears to be a universal trait (Martin, 2006) and thus an evolved skill. Yet, being funny does not appear to have any immediate survival benefits, as many of our other evolved skills do.

Furthermore, being deliberately funny (for a lot of us) tends to be a relatively difficult thing to master (Flamson & Barrett, 2008). Humour requires many skills; we need to be observant of our surroundings, of the situation, and to whom we are speaking, in order to produce something which is relevant and appropriate for our audience. Humour also requires a sense of timing, Theory of Mind [the understanding that others have thoughts and mental states which are different and separate to our own], and the ability to be creative in producing an original witticism. Finally, we need to have confidence to speak up and be heard while we joke and also confidence that we won’t be too red-faced if the joke happens to backfire. Anyone who has ever had a joke go wrong (obviously this is not something I have experience with…!) will know the shame and embarrassment associated with this. We might laugh it off at the time but ill-judged humour can lead to severe consequences, professionally and personally.

Even if we’re in a situation where humour is going right, the next thing to question is why we are bothering in the first place. This question is at the heart of why humour is so interesting; it is challenging and risky to produce, yet it is ubiquitously used in a wide range of contexts and appears to be universally attractive (Kaufman et al., 2008).

So why bother?

One explanation for why we use humour, despite the difficulty and the risk, is the Interest Indicator Theory (Li et al., 2009). This theory suggests that being funny for the sake of someone else helps to demonstrates that we are interested in them – precisely because humour is effortful. So, going to the effort of producing humour is flattering for the recipient. Being able to use humour in this way could be a very important skill because forging social connections and making has many benefits; Friends can provide support and this support can have a very positive impact on our mental well-being, our physical health, and even our longevity (Holt-Lunstad, Smith, & Layton, 2010). As such, being able to use one’s sense of humour to initiate strong social connections would have been a very useful skill indeed in terms of our evolutionary past.

But we don’t all like the same jokes…

Just because someone says something funny to us, and makes that effort, does not necessarily mean that we will appreciate it. Whilst humour might be universal, that does not mean we will all find the same jokes funny. It also does not mean we will find the same people funny.

In my research with colleagues from Abertay University, University of Stirling, and McMaster University, we were interested in testing to see if participants are selective in whose jokes they find funniest, to understand more about why we find certain people funnier than others. Research has demonstrated that we tend to form alliances and friendships with people who are similar to us (Apicella, Marlowe, Fowler, Christakis, 2012). With this in mind, in our study (Cowan, et al., in press), we measured how dominant our participants were and then played them audio clips of people telling jokes. What our participants were not aware of was that the voices they were listening to were digitally manipulated to sound more or less dominant. For male voices, this meant lowering the voice pitch to make the voice more dominant and raising the voice pitch to make it less dominant (for female voices, this meant raising the voice pitch to make it sound more dominant and lowering the voice pitch to make it sound less dominant). We then played the clips to our participants and asked them if they preferred the joke told by the dominant voice or the non-dominant voice. Each participant heard the same joke being told twice and the order of the voices was counterbalanced.

Finding similar others

Our findings demonstrated that men who were more physically dominant tended to like the dominant male jokers more, whereas the men who were less physically dominant (less big and muscly) found the less dominant voices telling jokes funnier (Our female participants didn’t demonstrate any preferences for either of the voices, regardless of their own dominance). Furthermore, in a follow-up to this study, we found that the effect is specific to jokes; other types of speech are not subject to the same judgement. This tells us something about the importance of the subtle cues we send when we tell someone a joke. Whilst the pitch of our voice can help to communicate how dominant a person is, a joke can help to communicate that we may be interested in cooperating with the recipient of our humour. If the recipient perceives that we are similar to them, perhaps in our dominance or possibly even in other domains, it is likely that they may find the joke funnier than if we seem different from them.

Research has shown us that the usefulness of humour can extend far beyond making someone laugh. It can tell someone that we’re interested in them and that we may wish to cooperate with them; both vital aspects of forming friendships and relationships with others. Using humour to initiate and maintain those crucial networks helps us to understand why our sense of humour exists and why it is such an important and valued skill in human societies.