Couples Who Laugh Together, Stay Together

Have you ever found yourself wondering if someone you’re interested in feels the same way about you? If they laugh at your jokes, recent research suggests that it might be a sign that they’re into you. 

In this episode, Under the Cortex hosts Norman Li and Kenneth Tan from Singapore Management University about their new paper in Psychological Science titled “The role of humor production and perception in the daily life of couples: An interest-indicator perspective.”  

APS’s Özge G. Fischer-Baum kicks off the discussion by asking questions about how humor plays a part in building and keeping relationships alive. Li and Tan illuminate how the mutual creation and enjoyment of humor serve as crucial markers of relational well-being.  

Unedited transcript

[00:00:09.530] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

In long term relationships, does laughter stay when romance fizzles out? Do couples who laugh together stay together? Or does a settled companionship bring ease, joy, and humor? When we see a couple joke, think together, is it an immediate sign of happiness? This is Under the Cortex. I am Özge Gürcanlı Fischer-Baum with the Association for Psychological Science to speak about the role of humor production in relationships. I have with me Norman Li and Kenneth Tan from Singapore Management University. They have published on this topic in APS’s journal Psychological Science. Norman and Kenneth, thank you for joining me today. Welcome to Under the Cortex. 

[00:00:56.610] – Norman Li 

Thanks. Thanks for having us. 

[00:00:57.970] – Kenneth Tan 

Thank you. Thanks for having us. 

[00:01:00.850] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Yeah, you are very welcome. We are very excited about your research, and it is basically about couples who laugh together. How did you first get interested in this topic? 

[00:01:13.750] – Norman Li 

Well, many years ago, I noticed that women who were attracted to me would often tell me that I’m really funny, even when I wasn’t even trying to be. The problem is those who were not attracted to me would never laugh at my jokes, even if I used my best material. So I also saw this at work, right, where the boss would make a stupid joke and everyone would. Everybody would laugh. And so I got to thinking and developed this interest indicator model that it’s not just about how good your humor is, but that humor might be used by people to indicate interest and negotiate in relationships in different domains. So the initial studies that I published in personality and social psychology bulletin many years ago mostly focused on initial courtship. And then this time, we thought we’d look at established relationships. 

[00:02:09.450] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

What about you, Kenneth? How did you get interested in this? 

[00:02:12.840] – Kenneth Tan 

Right. I think I have pretty much a lot of the same sort of interactions with people as Norm had, but I came on it from the perspective of it being in established relationships instead. And when Norm brought this idea up, it just made so much sense, and we thought that we should definitely look at something with regards to established relationships in furthering the model. 

[00:02:41.250] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

So there is always a question of directionality in psychological research. Right. So do you think couples who find each other funny are happier with each other, or is it the other way around? 

[00:02:53.510] – Norman Li 

I tend to think it’s more the other way around. So if you like each other, you’re satisfied with the relationship, you will find each other funny, you will like to initiate humor and to laugh at each other’s humor. 

[00:03:10.190] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

So, like, dad jokes are appreciated by the family of the dads, that type of thing? 

[00:03:16.530] – Norman Li 

Yeah, absolutely. 

[00:03:19.150] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

And when you were looking at this, you use the diary method. What did you ask your participants to put in their diaries. 

[00:03:28.610] – Norman Li 

Well, using this diary method, we asked questions every day for seven days. This allowed us to do a time lagged analysis to get at the question of causation. Ken can tell us about the actual specific questions. 

[00:03:45.270] – Kenneth Tan 

Right. So, in these diaries, we asked participants to report their daily levels of relationship quality, for example, how committed they were to their partner, how satisfied they were with their relationship, and also how much they perceived their partner was committed to them as well. We also asked participants to report on the amount of humor they produced and also how much humor they perceived from their partner on a day to day basis as well. 

[00:04:19.410] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

So is it like, how many jokes did your partner make today? Type of thing? 

[00:04:24.960] – Kenneth Tan 

Yeah. So we asked, to what extent did you try to make your partner laugh today? And then we also asked the reverse question, to what extent did your partners try to make you laugh today? Those were some of the example questions. 

[00:04:40.730] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

And in your article, you reported link between relationship quality and same day humor production. Can you expand on this for our listeners? 

[00:04:51.150] – Norman Li 

Yeah, we found that basically when participants reported having greater commitment to the relationship, they were more satisfied, and then they also perceived that their partner was committed to the relationship. Right. On those days, they also reported engaging in more humor production. And then, more importantly, the greater relationship quality also predicted greater humor production and perception for the next day. 

[00:05:25.130] – Kenneth Tan 

Right. So in terms of thinking about what comes first or what comes later, what we found was that, yes, greater relationship quality was associated with greater humor production and perception on the same day itself. But more importantly, I think we found that it was more likely the case that on days where you are more satisfied and committed to your partner, you actually thought that your partner was funnier the next day. On days where you don’t feel committed to your partner on the next day, you don’t find your partner as funny. 

[00:06:03.090] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Yeah. So it kind of paves the way for the next day. Happiness, too, or like joy and laughter, I guess. 

[00:06:12.550] – Kenneth Tan 

Yes, absolutely. 

[00:06:14.890] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

So are there any gender differences in your study? 

[00:06:18.490] – Norman Li 

Well, we did find that men were more likely to report having produced more humor in each day. So this kind of goes along with replicates a lot of prior research showing that men are more likely to be the humor initiators, especially when they’re attracting mates, but maybe to a lesser extent in actual ongoing relationships. But there weren’t any other gender differences. 

[00:06:47.970] – Kenneth Tan 

So it really supports the idea that actually, beyond courtship, actually both partners will use humor to sort of indicate engage relationship quality with each other. 

[00:07:02.790] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

And do you expect to find similar results across different generations, like millennials, Gen X, et cetera. What does the research show in general about that? 

[00:07:13.390] – Kenneth Tan 

Yeah, we do think that humor is something that, whether it’s Gen Z, whether it’s millennials, they are all interested in being humorous. I think what might be different is the type of humor that is different across generations. Now, we don’t have data on such different types of humor, but in terms of the general pattern of results, we don’t expect that these patterns would change across different generations. 

[00:07:46.390] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Yeah, that’s a really interesting point. I didn’t think about different generations making different type of jokes, but yeah, you are right. So that might definitely maybe affect the research in the future. I have another question. Your study is based on Singapore population. Do you expect to find different results or similar results in other regions of the world? 

[00:08:13.470] – Norman Li 

Well, first of all, I think this is a universal phenomenon, as hypothesized in the theory. We probably evolved in general as humans to utilize humor as a kind of interest indicator or relationship negotiation tool. But that said, there could be some differences in that. In cultures where relationships are more negotiable, there would be more incentives to figure out and negotiate the relationships than where relationships are fixed. Like if marriages are arranged or something like that, there should be less incentive to try to figure out and negotiate where you are. When you can take these kind of relationships for granted or they’re more fixed, then there should be less humor. 

[00:09:05.070] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

So this brings me to the next question. What are the next steps for you to study this topic? And do you plan to test other populations, people from the other regions of the world? 

[00:09:20.850] – Kenneth Tan 

Right. So next steps that we like to look at are actually what type of psychological indicators or traits couples think of their partners when there’s humor? So do couples in established relationships still think that their partners are intelligent, creative, warm when their partners are humorous? Or is this just a phenomenon when it’s initial attraction? 

[00:09:46.580] – Norman Li 

Yes. And then even more broadly, the interest indicator and model of humor is hypothesized to apply across all social domains. So we’d like to also examine the bi directional associations of humor in different relationships, such as work, or in parent child relationships and families, and also between friends as well. 

[00:10:12.390] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

I really enjoyed how you put it. It is a relationship negotiators. So we are using jokes as tools to negotiate, to see in a way where we are at in a relationship. So, yeah, that makes sense. Is there anything else that you would like to share with our listeners? 

[00:10:33.450] – Norman Li 

Well, maybe just from a practical advice perspective, we’d like to say that if your partner is no longer initiating humor towards you or no longer finds you funny, especially like the old jokes and things that used to always work well, that might very well raise a red flag. It could signal problems in a relationship. This actually happened to me as I was developing this theory many years ago. 

[00:11:00.520] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Well, I mean, it is tough to be a good scientist, right? 

[00:11:03.880] – Norman Li 

So your theory was correct, at least in my case. 

[00:11:09.430] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Yes, that’s right. But you had some consequences. Yeah. What do you cannot any practical advice or anything else you would like to share with our listeners? 

[00:11:18.880] – Kenneth Tan 

Well, I think Norm put out the best practical advice already, so I think really we’d like to just thank everyone for your interest in our research. Please do stay tuned for further developments, and also reach out to chat if you’re interested about future collaborations. Or if you ever find yourself in sunny Singapore, we’d be happy to host you. 

[00:11:47.270] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Oh, that is lovely. I will definitely take you up on that offer if I ever come. And thank you so much for answering my questions and giving us tips. People who are in relationships can use their jokes as a check in point, a check in measure. 

[00:12:06.850] – Norman Li 

All right, thanks a lot. 

[00:12:08.890] – Kenneth Tan 

Thank you so much. 

[00:12:11.210] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

This is Özge Gürcanlı Fischer Baum with APS, and I have been speaking to Norman Li and Kenneth Tan from Singapore Management University. If you want to know more about this research, visit 

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