Are men funnier than women? That, at least, is the stereotype. But now a scientific study in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review has tackled this question in all seriousness and come to some surprising conclusions.
Laura Mickes, a professor at the University of California San Diego, decided to explore this topic after a student slammed her on his teacher evaluation form, noting, "She's not funny." None of her male colleagues had received a similar slight on their evaluation forms. Was Mickes's sense of humor truly lacking, or were cultural biases to blame? To find out, she asked 16 men and 16 women to write captions for New Yorker-style cartoons. She then asked 81 men and women to rate which captions were funniest without knowing the sex of the author.
The results? Men's captions were deemed slightly funnier—but they shouldn't gloat just yet. Out of a possible score of 5.0, men's captions were deemed .11 points funnier, a margin considered "just at the edge of detectability," by study co-author Nicholas Christenfeld. Plus, this difference came mostly from other men finding men funny, whereas the women remained unimpressed. On average, male raters considered men's captions .16 points funnier. Women rated men's captions as only .06 points funnier. "Sad for the guys," Christenfeld said, "who think that by being funny they will impress the ladies, but really just impress other men who want to impress the ladies."
In a follow-up experiment, Mickes asked raters to guess the gender of the caption writers. Both men and women mistakenly attributed the funniest captions to men, which suggests that our notions of men being funnier boils down to cultural biases rather than a true test of wits. According to Mickes, "We go around observing women laughing at men, men laughing at men, men as comedians, men asserting that they are funnier, and, most likely, men trying harder," she says. "None of which requires them to actually be more capable of producing humor." The upshot? "There is some shred of truth to the received wisdom about men being funnier, but it does not come close to explaining how much funnier they think they are." Women, in other words, have the last laugh.