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Do Men and Women Process Humor Differently?

Do men and women process humor differently?

There is abundant research on sex differences in humor appreciation and humor production. Some studies found consistent sex differences, especially in the mating context (see my previous post here and here), while other studies did not find such differences. One way to study the subject is by looking at people's brains. With the advances of technology, and especially with functional MRI machines, it is easier to see if men and women process humor differently. fMRI machines measure the flow of blood to various parts of the brain; the more blood, the more activated this region is (and the more colorful the picture you get).

In a recent study, researchers wanted to test sex differences in brain activities when processing humor. Many studies find that the parts of the brain associated with handling emotions is generally more activated for women in many cognitive processes and behaviors. For example, women tend to perform better in decoding non-verbal emotional cues and express more emotions in interpersonal interactions.

Twenty nine subjects (15 females, 14 males), mean age 27, participated in this study. Participants were placed in the machine and were shown a series of cartoons, each one for seven seconds, after which they were asked to rate the cartoon on a scale from 1-5. For control, the subjects were also asked to rate neutral pictures.

The results showed that subjects indeed found the cartoons to be funnier, where women rated both cartoons and the neutral stimuli as funnier compared to the men. More importantly, as predicted, when women rated the cartoons, the parts of the brain responsible for processing emotions were more activated. These parts, the amygdala and the insula, for example, are involved in the generation, maintenance and identification of affective states. As the authors put it, it could be that affective arousal signals women when something is funny and that is why we see these regions more activated. This can also explain why women rate neutral pictures as funnier than men. Neutral pictures could still elicit some positive emotions to which women are more sensitive and thus rate them as funnier.

Women rated the cartoons in this study as funnier, but it is important to note that they were all non-offensive and non-sexual cartoons. This is important since women tend to dislike sexual and aggressive humor while men tend to like them. It is very possible that for other types of humor the result would be different.