Men 'are funnier than women'

...but by nowhere near as much as they think they are

Men are funnier than women – but only by the narrowest of margins – according to new research.

The study also found that men’s jokes went down better with other men than they did with women,  and that men overestimated how funny they were.

The research, by the University of California in San Diego, was based on a sample of 32 undergraduates – half male, half female – writing funny captions for 20 cartoons that appeared in New Yorker magazine.

The captions were then judged by other students, giving each joke a score of between zero and five.

On average, male writers earned 0.11 more points than female writers. One of the report’s authors, Nicholas Christenfeld, said this was ‘just at the edge of detectability’.

Fellow researcher Laura Mickes added: ‘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 [that women aren’t as funny as men].’

The psychologists say that, what is more interesting 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.

This runs contrary to one common explanations of why men might be funnier: that their humour is useful for impressing potential mates.

‘That’s sad for the guys who think that by being funny they will impress the ladies,’ said Christenfeld. ‘But they really just impress other men who want to impress the ladies.’

Christenfeld and Mickes explained that although writing captions may not be the most ‘natural’ way to be funny, it has several distinct advantages, including a level playing field to determine what people are capable of, as opposed to what they actually do in social settings. It also helps eliminate bias since it is harder to tell whether the writer is a man or a woman from written words alone.

The scores were achieved through a knockout tournament: One cartoon was displayed with two random and anonymous captions, and the raters chose the funnier of the two. All of the winning captions then went on to the next round, and the number of rounds that captions survived before being knocked out determined the writers' average scores.

In a second, related experiment, the researchers tried to determine if men are credited with being funnier than they really are.

As expected, funny captions were remembered better than unfunny ones – but humour was more often misremembered ‘as having sprung from men's minds,’ the researchers wrote in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

When the participants were asked to guess at authors' gender, unfunny captions were more often misattributed to women and funny captions were more often misattributed to men.

The researchers also noted that men used profanity and sexual humour a little more frequently

Finally, when asked to predict their own performance on a scale of one to five, the men figured they'd get a 2.3, and the women, a more modest 1.5. ‘Male confidence, in this domain at least, does seem to outstrip male competence,’ the authors wrote.

Published: 6 Nov 2011

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