A University of California study by psychologist Laura Mickes has found that men are funnier than women, but not by much, and probably not because it helps them find partners.
The stereotypical belief that men have a GSOH is based on an evolutionary sexual-selection argument that likens a man’s sense of humor to a peacock’s fancy tail or a deer’s rack of antlers, useful primarily for showing off and impressing potential mates. But Mickes says the 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.
Mickes says that although writing captions may not be the most natural way to be funny, 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, published in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, showed that the men edged out the women by 0.11 points out of a theoretically possible perfect score of 5.0. Male prowess at the task of being funny on command, said study co-author Nicholas Christenfeld, was “just at the edge of detectability.”
Interestingly, in a related experiment, when the study participants were guessing at authors’ gender, unfunny captions were more often misattributed to women and funny captions were more often misattributed to men.
Why are men the marginally funnier sex? 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,” Christenfeld offered. “It could be that they try harder or more often.”