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You Think You’re So Funny—If You’re a Man, You Might Be Right

What do men and women think about who is funnier?

Most people believe that they have a great sense of humor, though they might mean different things. For some, a great sense of humor means the ability to laugh at every situation or to have a lighthearted view of life, while for others, a great sense of humor might translates into “I am funny”.

Christopher Hitchens famously claimed in an article that women aren’t funny. In my own study described here, we did find that, on average, men were funnier than women, though the differences are not huge. Regardless of the actual sex differences in humor ability, it seems that men are perceived as funnier, and now we have the science to back it up.

In a recent study, researchers used what has become a very popular measure of humor ability to test how funny people are. This task involves showing subjects cartoons from the New Yorker cartoon captions contest. These cartoons have no captions, and the subjects are asked to come up with funny captions for them. If you’ve ever tried participating in the contest, you will know that it’s very difficult to come up with a caption that is even decently funny, and indeed, most captions produced are not funny at all.

The researchers introduced 20 such captionless cartoons to 32 students (16 males, 16 females), and asked them to write a caption for each one of them. The students in the study were also asked how funny they think others will find their captions, and if they think men are funnier than women. Eighty one independent judges were presented with those captions and rated them for funniness. These raters were also asked if they thought that men were funnier than women.

Results showed that overwhelmingly, both men and women believed that men were the funnier sex. Male caption writers also indicated that their captions would be funnier on average, compared to what female writers thought about their own captions.

Regarding the actual differences in funniness, the current study replicated the findings in my own study, where both the male and female raters found men to be, on average, funnier than women. The effects were smaller that what I have found, but nonetheless significant (it is possible that the relatively small sample size in the current study, more than 12 times smaller than my own, is responsible for the small effect).

In a follow-up experiment, the 50 funniest captions, as well as the worse 50 captions from the first study, were selected. Half of the captions were written by men and half by women. Seventy-two new subjects who were told the gender of the writer were asked to memorize 80 of the captions with the writer’s gender, and later were presented with captions that were either included, or not, in the original set. Their task was to recall whether or not they had seen the caption before and who they thought wrote it (male or female).

The researchers first looked at whether humor influenced caption retention. Indeed, the funnier captions were also more memorable, and subjects remembered that they had seen them before. Secondly, and more importantly, was the fact that funny captions were more likely to be attributed to men. In other words, when people read something funny, they usually thought that a man wrote it, and when they read a non-funny caption, they were more likely to attribute it to a woman. These inferences were true for both males and females, meaning that even females believed that men were funnier.

Why does this happen? Why do people perceive men to be funnier? For one, it is indeed true that men scored higher on humor creativity tasks, and we have more than one study to support that idea. So crediting men with funny captions makes sense overall because men indeed are funnier than women, on average.

It is important to remember though, that these differences are on average, and they are not very large. They do not reflect the fact that there are many funny women (Sarah Silverman is my personal favorite, Tina Fey a close second), and many men fail miserably when they try to be funny. In fact, this last fact may explain some of the usages of humor, especially within the mating game.

As the authors note, men’s confidence outstrips their competence. In other words, men are sure that they are funny regardless of the grim reality that most of them aren’t. This has profound implications on mating. Humor is a reliable signal of intelligence, and thus an important cue for a good mate. As I discussed in my earlier post, women are choosier when it comes to picking a mate because they undertake the heavier costs of reproduction (pregnancy, nurturing the baby, limited fertility). Men are the ones trying to impress women, and if humor can signal good mate quality, then evolution should favor it (by means of sexual selection).

The asymmetry in humor preferences reflects this. Women want someone that will make them laugh, while men want someone who will laugh at their humor. So men are more motivated to show their humor ability, even to the degree that they are overconfident in their performance. If an unfunny man tries to attract a woman with his wit, the worst thing that can happen to him is rejection. On the other hand, if she does like his humor, the payoff is huge and trumps all the lame attempts that came before it. It’s better then to try to be funny, even if most of the time it results in a failure. My own results indicate that funny people do have more sexual partners, start having sex earlier in life and are perceived to be more attractive in general, so the benefits are obvious.

The researchers in the current study found that men liked other men’s captions slightly more than the women did. This is understandable, given that a large portion of them included sexual jokes and profanity that women tend to dislike. There is no doubt that gender stereotypes of cognitive abilities also play a role in the perception that men are funnier, but continued research can help both sexes sort humor fact from fiction.