A Caveman Walks Into a Bar: Can Evolution Explain Humor?

Evolution explains a lot about human behavior — which traits survive and why. But not everything can be easily understood through the evolutionary lens. Humor, for example, correlates with intelligence and social development, but its purpose remains puzzling.

“Most of the time, at least in nature, you don’t get things developing that don’t have a purpose, even if it’s sort of incidental,” says Professor Aaron Kozbelt (Brooklyn College, The Graduate Center, CUNY).

Kozbelt contributed a chapter exploring several competing theories surrounding humor and evolution to the collection Creativity and Humor. From the standpoint of natural selection, for example, humor serves many important functions: It may have been used to diffuse tense situations, promote social bonds, and even usurp authority without relying on physical intervention. From the standpoint of sexual selection, humor has been viewed as a strong sexual characteristic. As Kozbelt points out, studies have shown that women consider funny men more attractive –so much so that in one study, their fertility increased in response to the “short-term attractiveness” of such men.

Kozbelt is interested in viewing humor as “one facet of a much larger story” connected to his first area of research, creativity. Kozbelt doesn’t buy into the notion that creativity depends upon sudden inspiration. But he is interested in the moment when creativity strikes, and how that plays into humor or “the ability to generate a verbal comment or behavior that other people find funny, witty, or humorous.”

“The capacity for some people to do this very rapid, complex, interesting thing — and for some people to be really good at that — is a fascinating topic,” he said.

Kozbelt is now looking at humor in “mating contexts,” where people use “humor as a way to find the right person.” After all, flirting often involves humor, and some Tinder profiles are downright funny — even if finding your soulmate is nothing to laugh about.

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Aaron Kozbelt (Professor, Psychology) | Profile 1 | Profile 2