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Are Women Really Less Funny than Men?

By Elizabeth Preston
Oct 22, 2011 4:20 AMNov 5, 2019 12:22 AM


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Did you hear the one about how men are the funnier sex? If not, you're alone. In a recent study of California undergrads, 89% of women and 94% of men not only were familiar with the stereotype, but agreed with it. To investigate whether this supposed humor discrepancy might be a fact, the study's authors set up a tournament of New Yorker cartoon captions.

In a format you'll recognize if you've ever been sucked into the New Yorker cartoon caption contest, 32 subjects were given a series of uncaptioned drawings (like the one above) and told to supply the funniest possible punch line. The subjects, half male, sweated through 20 of these captions before finally being relieved with a questionnaire: Do you think men or women are funnier? How funny do you think your captions are?

Then 81 more subjects acted as raters for the captions. For each of the 20 cartoons, captions were paired off tournament-style. In the first round, subjects saw each cartoon with 16 pairs of captions and indicated, for each pair, which one was funnier. In round two, the surviving captions were shuffled and paired off again, and so on until each rater had picked one winning caption per cartoon. The subjects didn't know the gender of the caption authors.

The result was a very slight, but statistically significant, advantage for male caption writers. The advantage was a bit larger when only looking at male raters: Men seemed to prefer captions written by other men.

Analyzing the captions afterward for their content, the researchers found that males were somewhat more likely to use sex and profanity in their gags. But these jokes weren't responsible for the advantage male caption writers received from male raters. Instead, it seems guys just got each other.

I don't have to point out that writing a New Yorker cartoon caption is a very specific kind of humor. I will, though, raise one question about the tournament scoring system. The authors awarded captions one point for each round of the tournament that they survived, from 0 to 5. That's one point for each matchup won. But a caption that survives, say, the third round of the tournament hasn't beaten just three other captions--it's beaten seven. A caption that wins its whole tournament has beaten 31 others, but only gets five times as many points as a caption that beats one other. Essentially, the scoring system undervalues the funniest captions. If these captions were all written by men anyway, it wouldn't change the results. But not knowing who wrote what captions, I'd be interested to see the data interpreted with a different scoring system.*

Why should men be funnier than women, anyway? Some scientists have suggested it's all evolutionary: joke-telling is a flashy feature, like large antlers or elaborate ribbit-ing, that advertises a male's worth to females. Men are more likely to tell jokes, they say, and women are more likely to laugh at them. Writer Christopher Hitchens endorsed the evolutionary view in an article titled "Why Women Aren't Funny":

If you can stimulate her to laughter—I am talking about that real, out-loud, head-back, mouth-open-to-expose-the-full-horseshoe-of-lovely-teeth, involuntary, full, and deep-throated mirth[...]—well, then, you have at least caused her to loosen up and to change her expression. I shall not elaborate further.

(And I did not read any further, because that passage made me open my lovely mouth and vomit.) 

Laura Mickes, author of this paper, points out that sexual selection wouldn't explain why men are mostly funnier to other men. And regardless of what evolutionary pressures may have existed in our past, today it's impossible to untangle their effects from those of culture. Anyone who grows up with a TV knows that women sigh a lot and cook dinner while their Ray Romano-esque husbands goof around and think of snappy one-liners. Boys are supposed to get muddy and tell jokes; girls are supposed to be polite and not ask for too much attention. Rather than being unfunny, are women just unpracticed? The female caption writers in the study had very low expectations of their own humor, rating their own captions significantly worse than men did.

The second part of the experiment addressed the question of culture, asking whether people are likely to falsely remember funny jokes as being told by men. The researchers used the 50 funniest and 50 least funny captions from the first experiment. A new group of subjects were shown cartoons and captions labeled with the author's gender, and asked to remember the sources of the captions. Later, subjects were shown the same captioned cartoons and asked to recall each caption writer's gender. Though the captions in the test were balanced for gender, subjects were more likely to misattribute funny captions to men and unfunny captions to women.

Whether or not men really have an edge in humor, it's clear that pretty much everyone believes they do. That's not especially funny. Being a woman, though, I'll try to laugh it off.

Laura Mickes, Drew E. Walker, Julian L. Parris, Robert Mankoff, & Nicholas J. S. Christenfeld (2011). Who’s funny: Gender stereotypes, humor production, and memory bias Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

*Thanks to Doug, my husband and resident bracket expert, for pointing out the scoring problem.

Image (c) Mick Stevens/The New Yorker Collection/www.cartoonbank.com

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