Friday Weird Science: Are men really funnier than women? Who's asking?

Sep 02 2011 Published by under Friday Weird Science, Uncategorized

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.
(See? Men are both funnier and more intelligent. It's SCIENCE!)

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 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

24 responses so far

  • I think you glossed over the most important factor. There were twice as many male judges as females. Male humor is vastly different from female humor. And from what I can see, it doesn't depend on verbal acuity much of the time. Case in point: The Three Stooges. To men: hilarious. To women: just stupid.

  • Alexis says:

    Hey Sci, I'm a new reader, first time commenting here. I was thinking the same thing about the 2x as many male judges as Kate above, and had a thought: Why don't we replicate the study on the internet? It would be easy to post a few cartoons with no captions. And I'm sure we could get a much larger sample size, as well as a more equal sex ratio of judges.

    Anyone interested?

    • scicurious says:

      Definitely agree with you and Kate, the sex ratio of the judges probably made a pretty big difference. Especially since...there were only three of them, and if 2/3 think something is funny...

      Alexis: we probably could replicate!!! I bet this would be very easy for someone to do. I wouldn't want to be getting the IRB approval though... 🙁

  • rpg says:

    Awesome post, Sci.

    I have difficulties with those tables, too. I'd be ashamed to claim a real correlation with an r of less than about 0.85--but maybe I'm biased because I'm used to things that can actually be measured. As you point out, a p value implies a difference from something, but it's not sure what that something is. I mean, if I were to be shitty about it, I could posit that you'd expect an r of 0.33 simply through chance (and no, I can't be arsed reading the paper).

    A niggle though--your YouTube vids are borked. I'm really interested in what you think different nationalities think is funny!

    • scicurious says:

      Ok, youtube vids fixed, though I don't remember what I put in and just replaced them semi-randomly! 🙂

    • Tybo says:

      r-values are tricky beasts. Some fields, anything less than that 0.85 mark isn't any good, but for others, it's great. My stats prof was actually making a joke of it a few days ago. She had a researcher (in environmental health, I think) with whom she was working, and they did a regression model on some of the work. The stats prof showed her a result with an r-value of 0.4-ish, and was kind of bummed that it was "low". The reaction she got from the researcher was "No way! It must be wrong... It can't be that high."

      So yeah, there's a lot of variation between fields. Basically, the more confounds to account for variation in the population, the lower an r-value you expect.

  • dr_beckie says:

    Did they include attractiveness as a co-variant? I may be making assumptions here, but I would hypothesis that anyone included in the study who was really good looking would be quite successful in terms of one night stands (should they want to have one - no moral judgements being made!) whether they are funny or not.

    Unless of course they took this into account by only including study participants on the lower level of the attractiveness scale for whom humour may be a requirement in order to pull.

    They also might need to control for alcohol consumption – perhaps the sex should only count, in terms of the study, if both parties involved where sober – cause some people are a lot funnier when you are drunk.

  • bb. says:

    I don't understand how can anyone treat humor as something contextually and culturally independent, that can be quantified based on several cartoon captions. That doesn't even begin to encompass all possible expressions of humor.

    Not to mention the fact that often people find stuff funny because of their shared history and/or interests. Not everyone will find, for example, science jokes funny -- they require a certain degree of knowledge to be able to understand them.

    How funny someone finds a joke does not depend only on the sense of humor of the author of the joke, but also on the sense of humor of the recipient. I, for one, was never able to understand why people find "The Office" funny. On the other hand, I roll on the floor when I watch Monty Pythons. If I were a judge, I'd say the Office wasn't funny. Yet it demonstrably is to masses of people.

    And to be able to understand some types of humor, you also need to know the conventions of the genre. For example, when I first started reading rage comics, I didn't find them funny at all -- because I didn't know the "conventions" of rage comics, what the faces usually represent, how the comics are usually constructed -- and until I've read a few of them, they just seemed silly. But after you realize how different templates and faces are used, not only do you begin to find them funny, you are also able to identify why some of them are bad.

    So much of our judgment of other people's humor depends on how we approach the jokes. Maybe men in the end do end up being more funny, like you said, because culturally we internalize conventions that make that type of humor funny. But how someone can derive from that fact that this means humor is sexually selected, when they didn't even measure the reproduction success of their allegedly funny participants, is beyond me.

    Anyway, a nice take down, Sci.

  • Jim K. says:

    I dunno, seems a little echo-chamber-y. Suppose we just change the phrase, "men getting laid" to "men who women choose to have sex with." Physical attractiveness is a reason (dr_beckie), and there are I'm sure a zillion reasons -- a man who's witty, and whose wit is not cruel, indicates he's paying close attention to her and their shared circumstances, and indicates he can see situations from multiple perspectives (including ones that make her laugh) -- well, from sexual selection we'd expect men who showed humor that women found funny to be more attractive as mates. That just doesn't seem that strange to me. Men have to appeal to women -- and women have to appeal to other women (Sarah Blaffer Hrdy is if such is possible even more awesome than Roz Chast). If the authors of the study presented it as definitive, then that's a problem, but if they presented it as one data point to open up some research, then the critique above is really helpful to refine the questions and the understandings of the answers.

  • Ben Zvan says:

    Is it just me or does that data show more of a positive correlation for women than men on several points?

  • Abby says:

    There's a transformation of correlation coefficients that's distributed as t (so varies with sample size) that let's you make judgments about whether a r-value is significantly different from zero. Significant correlations in the +-0.4 range are not unusual in psych - there's so much variation in humans that being able to explain even a quarter of it is a decent accomplishment.

    Aside from significance, there's standard "how strong do we claim this is" terminology. I learned that r> 0.8 means two measures are "extremely strongly correlated", 0.6<r<0.8 is "strongly correlated", 0.4<r<0.6 is "moderately correlated", 0.2<r<0.4 is "weak".

    Which is not to say that all the other methodological flaws in that paper are not issues - in particular, their stimuli and their judges are both huge issues - but the stats aren't terrible.

    ALSO. Their stats seem to show pretty strongly that intelligence (both vocab and Ravens score) correlate with mating success more strongly for women than for men... but that's not what they talk about.

    • Christina Pikas says:

      Abby beat me to it - but yeah it's common in social sciences to have r of 0.4 or so and be really excited about it.

    • scicurious says:

      Ah, thanks guys. I'm in biomed and a correlation of 0.4 would NEVER cut it. It's good to know the stats are all right at lease. And yeah, funny about that correlation between intelligence and mating success in women...but I guess that doesn't matter cause the women aren't FUNNY, you know.

  • becca says:

    I think everyone is ignoring the real lesson of this story- if you want to get with the ladiez, you need to practice by making up captions for new yorker cartoons. This, assuredly, will be a great comfort to the types of academics who write these stories.

  • Adrian Blake says:

    Americans say "lay back and think of England?". I thought it was just an English saying lol.
    I guess ex-colonial rulers are KIND of hot...? or is it the revolutionary aspect? "Umm... last night ... did you call out for an end to taxation without representation?"

  • Psycasm says:

    I made a post on this paper some time ago. There's certainly better examples of evo psych out there, this is just a very poorly done, and misleading paper.

  • m says:

    What about the fact that, socially, it is much less desirable for women to have many partners than it is for men, and that promiscuous behavior exposes women to more risk than men (pregnancy, sexual violence)? They don't see that this might, as it were, influence the "mating success", as they define it?

  • Vicki says:

    Even if the correlations are valid: is sense of humor correlated with having a large number of partners, or with being more likely to tell a stranger that you have a large number of sexual partners?

  • Marian says:

    Not necessarily with one or the other

  • [...] all the way down to my Doc Martens, when I read these two posts last weekend:  Scicurious on Are men really funnier than women? Who's asking? and Stephanie Svan on Humor Study is Funny Peculiar.   Sci and Stephanie together were discussing [...]

  • [...] naštejem nekaj primerov: dva psihologa, “raziskovalca” (moški spol!), sta ugotovila, da so moški bolj smešni kot ženske: pri naslednji omembe vredni raziskavi so ugotovili, da je vaše “kasnejše” spolno življenje [...]

  • […] Scicurious and Stephanie Svan help us wimminz understand why we are humorless and dumb. […]