The XX Factor

Men Aren’t Funnier Than Women, but We’ll Keep Pretending They Are

Woman laughing
A new study says the female funny bone is equal to the male, even if it’s not perceived to be

Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images.

When I saw a study that basically demonstrated that the men in the research group are no funnier than the women—but that the test subjects held sexist biases that caused them to believe men are funnier than women—I expected to see a round of coverage saying that scientists found men to be funnier than women. The reason is that the study found that out of 16 men and 16 women whose caption-writing abilities were voted on in a gender-blind test, the men did slightly better, but so slightly that it’s pretty much insignificant. What happened with the coverage was the “men are funnier” aspect was seized upon, but moderated in a way that nearly resembled responsible journalism regarding scientific research on gender. Most studies put the relevant information, that the difference was slight, at the top of the story! It’s not perfect, but I’ll take it.

Not perfect, because the most interesting findings of the study weren’t about the relative ratings of humor of men and women, but the biases of the test subjects when it came to measuring humor levels of men and women. While the subjects rated men’s and women’s caption-writing abilities roughly equally in a gender-blind test, they were so devoted to the stereotype of women being less funny that the subjects misinterpreted their own rankings.

As expected, funny captions were remembered better than unfunny ones. The authors of funny captions were remembered better too. But humor was more often misremembered “as having sprung from men’s minds,” the researchers write. And, even more telling, Mickes said, 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.

Most women who have a sense of humor can tell you about a time they’ve told a joke, had it blatantly ignored by their friends and family, and then heard a man tell the same joke (having subconsciously stolen it from the ignored woman) to peals of laughter. That stopped happening to me after my career as a writer took off, which functionally gave me male status when it came to joke-cracking in various social circles, though I still find with family that people kind of stare at me when I make jokes that would cause convulsions if I were a man. Part of that is the raunch factor; a woman saying something filthy is a bad girl who gets disapproving head shakes, but a man doing it is just being a guy, making it okay to laugh at him.

Inga Kiderra’s write-up of the study (which has at least one joke that made me LOL) notes that while men and women may be equally funny when asked to write jokes, people who have conducted humor contests for the public at large find that they have far more entries from men than from women, demonstrating that men probably try harder to get the LULZ than women. This doesn’t surprise me one bit, considering my personal experiences of watching women’s jokes get ignored, stolen by men, or regarded as gross and unladylike. Half the reason to make jokes is so people laugh at them, and if your femaleness prevents people from laughing at your jokes, you’re going to give up. Unless you’re like me, and just compulsive about it. Then you start to learn to appreciate the curled lip and the slight head shake for what it is, a subtle acknowledgement that if you wore your cojones on the outside, the person responding to you would have the proper appreciation for your skill with the fart humor.

It’s worth noting that this study didn’t get as much coverage as other, less scientfically sound evolutionary-psychology ramblings that actually promote sexist stereotypes. Which is a shame, because this study neatly debunks the unevidenced claims of evolutionary psychology that there’s a “sense of humor” gene on the Y chromosome that’s there—why else?—so men can get women to sleep with them. What the researchers actually found was that the slight edge given to men in humor rankings was because men find men funnier than women find men. So much for that “will get you laid” theory. Unfortunately, sound research that debunks poorly constructed theories attributing gender disparities to biology instead of socialization are out of style now, so they don’t get nearly enough coverage.