According the a recent story in the New York Times, I may not be as funny as I think I am. No, no, the Times didn’t run a story on my personal comedy. That would be a very short and a very boring article. I am speaking here as a member of my gender, as a man. And I’m speaking as one who just read the story by Pamela Paul, “Seriously, Men Only Think They’re Funnier.”
Paul’s article was based on a recent psychological study: “Who’s Funny: Gender Stereotypes, Humor Production, and Memory Bias” by Laura Mickes, Drew E. Walker, Julian L. Parris, Robert Mankoff, Nicholas J. S. Christenfeld, published in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. Laura Mickes and her colleagues decided to test the well-worn adage that men are funnier than women. Here’s what they did:
How to determine something so subjective as what makes one person giggle and another give a dismissive shrug? To create a blind test, 32 undergraduate men and women were asked to perform a variation on the New Yorker cartoon caption contest. Each was instructed to be as funny as possible coming up with 20 captions for 20 cartoons in — think fast — 45 minutes. The researchers then asked 34 undergraduate men and 47 undergraduate women to rate the funnier captions in pairs, without knowing the sex of the authors, assigning scores to the writers depending on how they fared.
As it turns out, the captions written by men were rated only slightly funnier than the captions written by women. Yet, both men and women thought that the men wrote the funnier captions. Men also used a bit more profanity and sexual humor. No surprise there for a me, a man who was once a teenage boy.
Paul concludes her article:
“What makes the male so much deadlier than the female?” Christopher Hitchens once asked in a much-maligned Vanity Fair column arguing that men are funnier than women. The answer, apparently, is they’re not. They’re just cockier.
Now, I don’t want to seem defensive for my sex, but it does seem that this study misses quite a bit of what constitutes humor. Writing a funny caption is just one sort of humor. Perhaps men excel at other sorts of humor, like telling jokes, making stupid puns, and engaging in Jackass kinds of stunts that women would never think of doing. Perhaps being cockier makes one a better joker, a better jester, and not just a bigger jerk.