Source: Observer
Date: 27 July 2008

Laughter: the secret of love

Self-deprecating humour is the key
to the English art of seduction, a psychological study reveals

Amelia Hill, social affairs correspondent

Would-be Casanovas have assumed for too long that a bunch of flowers, a twinkle in the eye and a few witty one-liners are the only weapons needed in the arsenal of a successful seducer.

But a psychological study into the art of seduction will reveal next month the secret that history's greatest seducers have known all along: it's easier to laugh a woman into bed than to get her there using any other ploy. However, researchers have discovered that not all humour is equal. The quickest path to the boudoir is to wield a very specific form of wit: self-deprecation.

'Many studies show that a sense of humour is sexually attractive, especially to women, but we've found that self-deprecating humour is the most attractive of all,' said Gil Greengross, an anthropologist whose findings, 'Dissing Oneself: The Sexual Attractiveness of Self-Deprecating Humour', will be published in next month's Journal of Evolutionary Psychology.

During a two-year study into the role of humour in human sexual selection, Greengross was surprised to see how often self-deprecating humour was used between potential mates during courtship, or between established mates to smooth troubled waters during an argument.

'The frequent use of self-deprecating humour in sexual contexts - with potential mates, established mates or sexual rivals - was astonishing,' he said. 'People who used this humour were considered to be far more desirable as mates.'

One possible explanation is that taking the mickey out of oneself is a high-risk strategy. 'It is a risky form of humour because it can draw attention to one's real faults, thereby diminishing the self-deprecator's status in the eyes of others,' he said. 'But based on the idea that verbal humour evolved to function as a fitness indicator, self-deprecating humour can be an especially reliable indicator not only of general intelligence and verbal creativity, but also of moral virtues such as humility.'

Anthropologist Kate Fox, author of Watching the English, believes self-deprecation is uniquely vital when the English dabble in the art of seduction: 'For the English, the rules of humour are the cultural equivalent of natural laws - we obey them automatically, rather in the way that we obey the law of gravity.

'The most important rule is the proscription of earnestness. Pomposity and self-importance are outlawed. Serious matters can be spoken of seriously, but one must never take oneself too seriously,' she added. 'As long as everyone understands the rules, they are duly impressed both by one's achievements and by one's reluctance to trumpet them.'

Problems, however, arise when the British attempt to play the game with those from another culture. 'If you are trying to impress a potential mate who does not understand the rules, they fail to appreciate the irony and take our statements at face value,' she said. 'They inadvertently call our bluff by accepting our apparently low estimate of our achievements, and the whole thing backfires on us. Which, quite frankly, serves us right for being so silly.'

Americans love the British self-deprecating humour, and a prime example is featured in the film Notting Hill, in the scene when Hugh Grant's character attempts to charm Julia Roberts with the contents of his fridge. 'Would you like orange juice or something cold - Coke, water, some disgusting sugary drink pretending to have something to do with fruits of the forest?' he asks.

When she demurs, unmoved, William persists. 'Would you like something to nibble? Apricots, soaked in honey - quite why, no one knows - because it stops them tasting of apricots and makes them taste like honey, and if you wanted honey, you'd just buy honey, instead of apricots, but nevertheless yours if you want them.'

However, Greengross warns of another pitfall in the use of self-deprecation. 'If you are a low-status individual, using self-deprecating humour can be disastrous to you,' he said.

'Think about the secondary-school child whom nobody liked, who makes fun of his shortcomings in sports. His peers mocked him and he was considered more pathetic that he was previously. This is high-risk seduction. It is not for everyone.'

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