Today is a fun day here for humor. Stephanie Zvan, newly of Freethought blogs, and I, will be talking about the same paper. We both took away some different things from it, for different reasons, and I think the two posts will give you a really good idea of just how...bad...this paper really is. So make sure you check out Stephanie's post!
There's a big issue at hand here. I have to write about...humor. The problem is, trying to write about humor WITH humor?! That's frakkin' hard. It's like me walking up to you, looking you dead in the eye, and saying "ok, be funny. NOW." You will, probably, not be funny (no offense).
So, I'm not gonna try this time. Rumor has it, Sci is funny. Sometimes. Honestly, only on Fridays, if you see or hear or read me being funny on any other day of the week, you are imagining things and you really should get that looked at. Be that as it may, Sci's not going to be funny today. After all, as this paper says, humor is found more often in males. So I’ll just have to stick with sarcasm.
Greengross, Miller (both authors are male. This may or may not be important. No disclosures as to whether or not the authors themselves were funny). "Humor ability reveals intelligence, predicts mating success, and is higher in males" Intelligence, 2011.
This whole thing starts with a question that seems very natural. WHY, exactly, are we funny? The authors for this paper offer the explanation of sexual selection for why we humans are so darn entertaining (why cats are amazingly entertaining…well that’s some evolutionary psychology we’re not getting into today). The idea is that a good sense of humor is hard to fake, and is a good sign of intelligence, creativity, or possibly just a really large obsession with Reddit. And of course, what we want is intelligence. It’s one of the most desired traits in a mate for both sexes (though given what I’ve seen on TV these days, you could have fooled me).
So the authors here wanted to see if humor correlated with intelligence. They took 400 college students (200 men, 200 women, 58% white, average age 20.6) and gave them intelligence tests. They then handed them three cartoons without captions from the New Yorker, and told them to come up with funny captions. They then had six judges (4 men, 2 women) rate the funniness of each caption from 1 (not funny) to 7 (ROFL).
Finally, they asked the students for their number of sexual partners, number of one-night stands, and the numbers of times the students had slept with more than one person in a 24-hour period. This, along with correlations for “pro-promiscuity attitudes” and “family values”, was determined as a measure of mating success.
Not surprisingly, most of what the 400 students produced was crap. From each of the captions produced, the authors took the one rated as most funny and used that as the standard of the person’s “humor ability”.
And they found a lot of correlations. They found that captions rated as funny belonged more often to male subjects, that funny captions correlated more often with verbal intelligence, and that both the funnyness and the high verbal intelligence scores were found most often in males.
Problems I have with this paper are many and varied. Pardon me while I whip out my delicate little claws.
1) They used cartoons from the New Yorker. Who writes those cartoons? They are, the vast majority of them (and possibly ALL of the ones used in this study because, as far as I know, the New Yorker has only one female cartoonist) written by men. That's probably going to change who finds it most difficult to find something funny.
2) Ok, sure, maybe men ARE more funny at this particular task than women. How is this ability to think up a funny caption on demand representative of sense of humor in total? Apparently there's literature on this, but I'm rather skeptical. And not only that...WHO DETERMINES WHAT IS FUNNY? Yes they had male and female judges, but I seriously doubt that it's in our genes that cats with badly spelled captions make us LOL. And only six judges? How did they pick these judges? What kinds of humor did the judges prefer? The same kind? Different kinds? It seems that personal preference would have a big influence here, and people’s sense of what is funny can vary drastically.
3) This was done in college students. College students are usually not the best predictors of society at large to begin with, and now you're predicting both humor and intelligence from this highly biased sample. What about all the men and women who DON'T go to college?
3) My favorite thing about these evo psych papers is how "reproductive success" appears to be defined exclusively in terms of getting laid, and usually just in terms of males. I assume the women are just lying there and thinking of England throughout our evolutionary history (which would be a challenge back before England existed, but I'm sure we're very creative). Of COURSE, if male reproductive success is what matters, then something will be correlated with it. But how on earth do we get to the idea that humor ITSELF must be sexually selected for? If humor is an indicator of intelligence, I think it's far more likely that intelligence is sexually selected for. Not humor. In fact, Stephanie mentions that there are several studies showing women rate humorous men as being LESS intelligent. The authors here never mention that.
4) This paper conveniently forgets who defines what is funny. Both the men and the women were heavily influenced by what, societally, is funny. And we live in a society where what is funny is determined mostly by men (for examples of this, see “The Hangover”, and all the shock and awe over the recent movie “Bridesmaids”). So couldn’t it be possible that they determined what was funny through a primarily “male humor” lens? So sure, humor as defined RIGHT NOW in society may very well be more common in men...but that doesn't mean that ALL HUMOR is more common in men. After all, the concept of things that are funny changes drastically over time and also between cultures. And it doesn’t appear that possible cultural differences in humor were taken in account at all. For example, in Japan, this is totally funny:
In Britain, THIS is totally funny:
In America, this is funny:
But so is this:
And it's really too much to even generalize by COUNTRY. The idea of what is funny means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. There are different KINDS of humor, and some people find some kinds funnier than others. There are even people out there...who like PUNS. I wish I were kidding.
5) A good sense of humor is more valued in men than in women. Women tend to want men who make them laugh, men want women who will titter at their jokes. Thus it is not remotely surprising to me that men might be seen as more funny, and indeed BE more funny. After all, it’s something they’ve had to DEVELOP. If you want to be noticed and you don’t look like Edward Cullen from Twilight (and most men don’t), well…you’d best be smart, and the best way to look smart for a man is to be FUNNY. Women, on the other hand, are not encouraged to look smart, and thus they are not likely to WORK at their sense of humor. Thus, the humor correlate with intelligence may well be a bit of a stretch.
6) The “mating success” of the students was considered higher if they had had a high number of one-night stands and hookups with more than one person in 24 hours. Ummm…this seems a little subjective. They did ask about people’s views on it and their correlation with perceived senses of “family values”, but then they basically admitted that their model emphasized quantity of mates over “quality” (whatever that means). What does this even MEAN in terms of mating success? After all, isn't mating success really determined, not by the mating, but by the productions thereof?
7) You’re telling me a sense of humor is sexually selected for and is thus…innate? You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. A sense of humor isn’t just an innate trait, it involves a lot of social awareness and understanding of various situations, some of which can be innate but a lot of which is probably learned. Intelligence is probably genetically determined on some levels, but the development of a culturally appropriate sense of humor? Ok, authors, find me the gene for funny. I hope it associates with the gene for Rage Comics, LOL cats, and Hungover Owls, or I just don’t take it.
8) Ok so finally, so humor predicts mating success, is correlated with INTELLIGENCE, and is found MORE in males? Hm...I'd try to put that together with whether males are more intelligent than females, but my poor, stupid, unfunny female brain just can't put it together...science is HARD, you guys!
9) Wait I'm not done. Let's take a look at those statistics. Apparently science really IS hard, you guys, because all of those statistics were rated as "significantly different". These are all correlations. Observe:
Now I'm not an expert in correlation. I know that r values between 0 and 1 are determined to mean that variables increase or decrease together. The authors state that these r values are significant...but significant compared to WHAT, exactly? I'm prepared to buy significance in an r to z transform, but what are they comparing to to achieve this significance? Males to females? I've never done this before, so perhaps I'm missing something here...but I'm not really sure what exactly this data SHOWS. Anyone? Science is hard!
10) No really, finally finally. Let’s all breathe. And say together “CORRELATION IS NOT CAUSATION”. Ok, maybe humor is correlated with mating success. Maybe humor is correlated with intelligence. Does this mean that humor either causes or is caused by either of those things? No. Believe me, if humor caused mating success, there would be a lot fewer lonely people bumming around on Reddit. And do you have to be intelligent to be funny? No. There’s more than one type of funny, and the residents of Jersey Shore certainly prove that you don’t have to be smart to produce some pretty funny material (albeit unintentionally). And as to how humor and intelligence measures are found more often in males…well, there are just far too many confounds for that conclusion.
So what can we conclude from this? I suppose, maybe, we can conclude that humor, as defined by current Western definitions (meaning humor as defined by a male dominated society), is more often found in males, is correlated with higher verbal intelligence, and is also correlated with increased pro-promiscuity attitudes and a higher number of sexual partners. But I guess that title didn't sound as good.
Greengross, G., & Miller, G. (2011). Humor ability reveals intelligence, predicts mating success, and is higher in males Intelligence, 39 (4), 188-192 DOI: 10.1016/j.intell.2011.03.006