Study Finds Male Tendency to Overcompensate May Be Why They’re Proven Funnier Than Women

“All my life, I’ve heard that men are funnier,” postdoctoral researcher Laura Mickes said. “And I never believed this, I always thought that we were equally funny. The stereotype just didn’t make sense to me. It didn’t matter much, it’s a little annoying.”

Student ratings for a course Mickes taught then prompted her to research whether men and women were equally capable of producing humor, a hypothesis that has never been tested before.

“I got a rating on a course I taught and one of the students said ‘She’s not funny,’” Mickes said. “I thought, first of all, ‘How odd, I’m not a comedian,’ but second, none of my male counterparts got that criticism.”

The study used a controlled version of the New Yorker cartoon caption contest to explore gender stereotypes of humor.

In the first experiment, researchers asked 32 undergraduates — 16 males and 16 females — to write captions for 20 cartoons in 45 minutes.

They used the cartoons to eliminate bias because of their gender neutrality and because college-aged students rarely read The New Yorker.

A separate group of 34 male and 47 female undergraduates then rated captions for each cartoon on a scale of 1 to 5. Results found that males scored 0.11 more points than women.

“I thought, ‘Holy cow, men are funnier,’” Mickes said. “I was horrified and the males on the paper were delighted. But the thing is, the difference was barely detectable.”

In addition, researchers found it interesting that men gave higher ratings than women.

In a second experiment, researchers tested whether there was bias in the caption ratings from the previous experiment —specifically if male caption writers were rated higher than they really were by both female and male raters. Participants remembered funny captions and their authors better than unfunny captions and authors.

In addition, 90 percent of participants assumed that authors of funny captions were male.  Also, male caption writers predicted a higher performance score for themselves than women.

“There’s a shred of truth to this stereotype, but the other neat finding is that there is a memory bias,” Mickes said. “People tend to misattribute funny things having come from a man and not from a woman.”

Researchers observed that men used profanity and sexual humor 2 percent more than women, but did not attribute it to their higher ratings.

The researchers, which included The New Yorker cartoon editor Robert Mankoff, theorized that men try harder and more often to be funny.

As an example, Mickes said males submit more entries for the cartoon contest than women do.

“So many more males write in for the caption contest than women do,” Mickes said. “A lot of women win it, even though much fewer submit entries.”

In their next step, researchers will conduct follow-up experiments to measure why men have the humor advantage. They will ask participants to not be outright funny with material that can easily produce humor. If males are funnier than females, it indicates that males are trying harder.

Readers can contact Regina Ip at [email protected]. 

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