About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Thursday, February 02, 2006
A good sense of humor will get you a date...
Bressler and Balshine found that women were paying attention to the perceived sense of humor of potential male partners, preferring those with humorous autobiographical statements. Men, on the other hand, did not express a preference for witty women, thereby confirming yet another stereotype about gender differences. Interestingly, however, humor did not have what psychologists call a “halo effect,” like, for example, physical attractiveness. In the latter case, people who are found to be more attractive are also rated higher on character and intelligence scales, even when no information has been provided to participants about either aspect. Instead, humorous males in the Bressler and Balshine study were judged to be less honest and less intelligent, tough they were also considered to be more socially adept. Hey, whatever happened to the idea that women chose mates based on trustworthiness and intellectual prowess? I don't mind been outclassed by Groucho Marx or Jon Stewart, but not the Three Stooges!
So far so good, as far as this type of study goes. The problem with Bressler and Balshine's paper is that it actually set out to test a hypothesis about the evolution of humor in humans. The hypothesis was proposed by evolutionary psychologist G. Miller, who suggested that a sense of humor has been selected because it is an indicator of good genes, sort of like the peacock's tail. Moreover, Miller claimed that men and women should both prefer funny individuals of opposite sex, since the long, monogamous relationships humans typically engage in make for symmetrical sexual selection.
To begin with, it isn't clear on what grounds one would think that humor is correlated with genes that confer higher reproductive fitness; for that matter, the very claim that there are genes affecting a complex behavioral and culturally-influenced trait like humor is dubious (it is possible, but there is no evidence whatsoever to back it up). Moreover, Bressler and Balshine's results actually contradict Miller's hypothesis on two counts. First, because they found gender-related differences in the evaluation of humor as a sexual attractor – contrary to Miller's prediction; second, because there was a negative relation between humor and trustworthiness or intelligence – the latter being traits usually thought to be under sexual selection in primates. So much for sense of humor = good genes theory.
Ah, but there lies the beauty of a quasi-scientific discipline such as evolutionary psychology: it takes just a bit of imagination to concoct an alternative explanation that rescues the original hypothesis. Bressler and Balshine do just that, and I'll leave to the curious reader to go through their paper for some additional amusement. The point is that this sort of post hoc rescue is precisely what makes evolutionary psychology a good, possibly even largely correct, form of narrative about human cognitive evolution. But it ain't no science.