Think about someone you know who has a great sense of humor. Are you thinking of a man or a woman? Most people, when asked this question, imagine a man. There is a prevalent stereotype that men are funnier than women. This stereotype is shared by both men and women—but of course, just because it exists does not mean it is true.
A new study I conducted with Paul Silvia and Emily Nusbaum from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro put the stereotype to the test. We systematically reviewed all available studies that looked at sex differences in humor ability, and using the statistical tool called meta-analysis, we calculated the difference. Before I reveal the results, let me explain what we did.
Humor is a complex phenomenon that involves social, emotional, physiological, cognitive, cultural and evolutionary influences, to name a few. One important aspect is the ability to make others laugh. Humor production ability is a distinct cognitive ability that is largely uncorrelated with appreciation and enjoyment of humor. When looking at who is the funnier sex, we focus then on humor production ability.
To do so, we conducted a systematic review known as meta-analysis, a method in which researchers collect all available data on a given topic that meets certain criteria defined by the researchers. In our case, we only included studies that objectively evaluated humor ability. We excluded studies where people evaluated their own humor ability, as most people believe they have an above-average sense of humor. We also did not include studies where the sex of the person was known to the evaluator. For example, the sex of a teacher may have an effect on how funny he or she is perceived.
We focused then on studies where men's and women's humor ability was evaluated objectively. What does this mean? In a typical study that met our inclusion criteria, subjects were introduced with a stimulus, often a cartoon without a caption. Then the subjects were asked to write a funny caption. Later, independent judges rated the responses for funniness on a scale (e.g., 1-5). The key for such tasks is that the raters do not know anything about the humor producers, including their sex. Such comparisons are more reliable and valid, and raised our confidence that we are measuring true humor ability with little stereotypical influence.
We were able to find 28 studies with 36 independent samples that met our criteria. The combined sample included 5,057 participants (67 percent women). Studies were from various countries (U.S., U.K., Hungary, Germany, Israel and more). Most of the data (60 percent) came from data that was never published before in a peer-reviewed journal, which helps to minimize the effect of publication bias.
We then calculated sex differences on the combined sample and found that men were, overall, rated as funnier than women. How big was the difference? In statistical technical terms, the effect size was 0.32, or roughly one-third of the standard deviation. In plain English, this means that 63 percent of men score above the mean humor ability of women. This is considered a small to medium difference.
We also looked for a long list of possible confounding variables that might explain the difference. The countries where the data come from, the sex of the authors doing the research, age of participants, whether there were more men or women judging the humor—none of it made a difference in our analysis.
What does it all mean? It means that to the best of our knowledge, on average, men appear to have higher humor production ability than women. Note that I emphasized the word average because the study does not mean, as Christopher Hitchens famously proclaimed, that women are not funny. The fact that men, on average, appear to be funnier than women, does not imply that every single man is funnier than every single woman. There are many great female comedians such as Sarah Silverman, Tina Fey, Ali Wong and historically, Lucille Ball, Joan Rivers, and many, many more. All these great comedians are funnier than 99.9 percent of all men.
Why would men have higher humor ability than women on average? It is possible that the view that women are less funny is so pervasive that societal forces discourage girls and women from developing and expressing their humor, making a woman less likely to be perceived as funny. There is, however, minimal evidence to support the view that our society suppresses women from producing and exhibiting humor.
On the other hand, the evidence does suggest that humor plays a major role in mating, with a strong evolutionary basis. As I have explained in previous posts, women, who undertake the heavier costs of reproduction (pregnancy, breastfeeding) are choosier than men when selecting a mate. Women tend to look for various signal indicators of mate quality, and a great sense of humor is one of them. Humor is strongly correlated with intelligence, which explains why women value men with a great sense of humor, as intelligence was crucial for survival throughout our evolutionary history when we mostly lived in hunter-gatherer groups.
Men, on the other hand, prefer women who laugh at their humor. That means that over our evolutionary history, men likely had to compete harder with other men to impress women with their sense of humor. Plenty of evidence supports this view, showing how important it is for women to find a man with a great sense of humor, while men generally do not place a high value on women's humor production ability.
Regardless of the source of the difference, which is still open for debate, our analysis provides the first comprehensive and systematic review of sex differences in humor ability. Hopefully, more research will follow.
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