Men are funnier than women, but only just barely and mostly to other men, according to a new study. The stereotypical belief that men have a GSOH is based on an evolutionary sexual-selection argument that likens a man's humour to a peacock's fancy tail or a deer's rack of antlers, useful primarily for showing off and impressing potential mates.
But the study's first author Laura Mickes, a postdoctoral researcher in the UC San Diego Department of Psychology and a Ph.D. graduate of the same department, says that that her findings don't indicate that. "The differences we find between men's and women's ability to be funny are so small that they can't account for the strength of the belief in the stereotype." For the study, Mickes and her team had males and females writing captions for New Yorker cartoons in a quiet room. Then, the cartoons were displayed with two captions to another group of participants. This group rated the captions in a five-round knockout tournament. The winning captions of round one were then randomly pitted against each other and so on. The number of rounds, from zero to five, that captions survived before being knocked out determined the writers' average scores. Though writing captions may not be the most "natural" way to be funny, Christenfeld and Mickes explained, it does level the playing field and also helps eliminate the effect of bias in the humor ratings since it is harder to tell whether the writer is a man or a woman from written words alone. The results showed that men edged out women by 0.11 points out of a theoretically possible perfect score of 5.0, while about 90 percent of both male and female study participants agreed with the stereotype that men are funnier. Male prowess at the task of being funny on command, said Christenfeld, was "just at the edge of detectability," and men scored better with other men than with women. But what's even more interesting, the researchers say, and what runs contrary to the standard explanations of why men might be funnier, is that men did better with other men: Female raters allocated only an average 0.06 more points to the male writers, while the male raters gave them a significantly higher average of 0.16 more points. "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." So if the study is right and men are just a skosh more funny, why might that be? In analyzing the content of the captions, the researchers noted that men used profanity and sexual humor a little more frequently, but that didn't seem to account for the "win" since that style of caption didn't necessarily do better, with either sex. It could be that men see more opportunities to take a stab at humor, said Christenfeld. It could be that they try harder or more often. The study has been published in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review.