To break down the science of humor seems, in a sense, almost contradictory to the spontaneous nature of humor. It's hard to explain why some people find Monty Python hilarious, for instance, while others don't quite see the humor in a bunch of British men making wry, off-color comments to each other. A sense of humor is at once highly individualized, yet also what bonds us to others in a way nothing else does. The purpose of it can be very biological—a way of finding a compatible mate—but it can also be an indicator of emotional intelligence, and of the environment and experiences specific to an individual.

Hopes&Fears spoke to humor experts to explore the idea of what factors create and shape our sense of humor, and what the evolutionary purpose of humor might be.

WE [RESEARCHERS] SOMETIMES STRUGGLE to agree on how to define a sense of humor. Most attempts at formal definitions agree that sense of humor is a multidimensional construct. We do know that the vast majority of people believe that they have an above average sense of humor, so many of us are obviously wrong in our self-assessments. Does a good sense of humor mean that you can produce humor, or is it sufficient to be someone who appreciates humor? Since not all humor is "nice", does a "good" sense of humor apply only to those who use humor nicely? I know people who have a great talent for remembering and being able to tell jokes. They are fun to be around, they make others laugh, but very little of the humor they produce is their own creation. Most people would probably view these joke tellers as having a good sense of humor. I have been told that I am funny, but I have absolutely no ability to remember a joke. What I share occurs to me more spontaneously, and is usually unplanned. It could be that these two forms of "sense of humor" come from two very different sources and life experiences. There also is some research evidence that gender differences might exist in what we see as a good sense of humor in others. Women like men who make them laugh, but men prefer women who laugh at their humor. So, what we mean by a good sense of humor may not be a single trait or skill.

Given the ambiguity around the definition of a good sense of humor, it is difficult to determine where the sense of humor comes from. Research looking at twins suggests that there may be a genetic component, but genes do not explain a great deal of the variability in humor. Humor styles have been found to be correlated with many other personality traits, with good humor being associated with nice qualities and bad humor associated with darker and less desirable qualities. One study compared the life experiences of professional comics with a sample of college students, testing the assumption that comics may have developed their humor to deal with challenges they faced growing up. The results revealed very little difference between the two groups.

Most would probably agree that those who are perceived to have a good sense of humor tend to be creative and cognitively flexible. They can see the world through a different lens, so that they appreciate the ironies and absurdities in life. If they are able to share these views effectively with others, they will be seen as having good sense of humor. Still there may be differences among people. For some this worldview may be combined with a cheerful, optimistic perspective, while for others it may exist alongside a darker experience of the world. The humor that results may be very different, and it may appeal to different audiences.

While there are probably some exceptions—people who simply cannot or will not ever be seen as having a good sense of humor—most people, if they make the effort, can find a way to create the impression that they have a good sense of humor. Being perceived as having a good sense of humor has been shown to provide many social benefits, so it is worth the effort. The easiest strategy to build your case for having a sense of humor is to laugh at the humor attempts that others make. My own research has shown that laughing at another's joke can overcome other factors that may make you unappealing, since you obviously have a good sense of humor if you like my jokes! A more active effort would involve spending time learning some jokes that you can share. Stealing other people's humor and using it socially can be effective. While your sense of humor, in this case, may be less "natural," it can still be a valuable social tool.

I will end with a final caveat, since I believe being funny or sharing borrowed humor represents a limited view of "sense" of humor. The true master, with the ideal "sense" of humor, knows when to use humor and when not to use humor. Sensing when humor is an appropriate or inappropriate response and being able to provide or withhold that humor, represents a true SENSE of humor.

--Arnie Cann: Emeritus Professor of the Department of Psychology at University of North Carolina - Charlotte

I THINK THERE'S A FAIR CONSENSUS in the field of humor scholarship that humor is an outgrowth of play behavior. Other animal species show play behavior, but it's typically physical behavior—like with chimpanzees there's usually play fighting. People tend to assume that we have just generalized play to the mental sphere from physical play because we have more mental ability, so we can play with ideas and thoughts. That's a very general perspective on how humans' humor emerged.

Physical play is generally thought to be enhancing of a variety of skills. For instance, if chimps play fight, it's very clear they're not trying to harm each other, they're just kind of enjoying interacting. It can serve to foster development of a number of possible skills; it can foster muscle development and other social skills like getting along with others and collaborating.

Humor, which is play in the mental sphere, can foster various kinds of thought, and some people have speculated that humans are perhaps the only ones who can generate multiple possibilities of how a situation might play out. Humor is kind of a specific representation of this type of skill, and it can be very adaptive in order to eliminate sort of erroneous kinds of projections of how things might eventually resolve. In the context of humor—particularly jokes—you start with one perspective on what is anticipated, you arrive at the punchline, and you have to come up with a different perspective. Intrinsically, humor fosters flexibility in thought, and resolves some competing possibilities of the most satisfying resolution. Analogies come between the "ha ha" response in regards to jokes and humor, and the "a-ha" response in problem solving where it's not necessarily something that's funny, but it's a parallel kind of mental situation. To some extent, I think you can see humor as practice at switching to and using the more thorough, rational, reflective thought.

We've speculated that one evolutionary purpose of a sense of humor is that it's a signal for intelligence in mate selection. We can judge if a person can play with ideas, if they're cooperative, and certainly evolutionary psychology suggests that sense of humor sort of reflects one's intelligence. It's common knowledge that a very popular request on dating sites is that people request someone with a sense of humor or say "I have a good sense of humor," so it's very commonly featured in a context where people are looking for potential mates.

--W. Larry Ventis: Psychology Professor at the College of William & Mary; President of the International Society for Humor Studies

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