Men have long been defended as the funnier sex; a sense of humor attracts women (just ask women) and the thinking was that an inherent funniness was a biological adaptation akin to a peacock's tail or an elaborate preening ritual in animals come mating season. Christopher Hitchens argued this point in his 2007 Vanity Fair article, "Why Women Aren't Funny." In his words, men "had damn well better be" funnier. "Women have no corresponding need to appeal to men in this way. They already appeal to men," he says with an unhumorous textual wink. In response, a 2008 article titled "Who Says Women Aren't Funny?" contends that women are in fact quite funny, and that women--especially on television--are more responsible for their own writing than before. It makes no mention of women in typical social situations, however, which is precisely where Hitchens claims men excel.
The study: Round 1
The U of C study set out to determine whether this social bias (backed up by the results of the Stanford University School of Medicine study referenced in the Vanity Fair article) is legitimate, or if we're thinking about this humor thing in the right way.
The study team ran two separate but related experiments. The first experiment had 16 undergraduate males and 16 undergraduate females writing captions alone in a quiet room for 20 New Yorker cartoons in 45 minutes, for a total of 640 captions. All were instructed to be as funny as they could be.
This was the level-playing-field portion of the show--without the pressure of social interaction, men and women could access the full depth of their humor, rewrite if necessary, and the resulting captions could be presented to test subjects without indicating the sex of their author. To test men against women, a cartoon was diplayed with one caption written by a man and the other by a woman, then subjects chose the funnier of the two.
The number of rounds, from zero to five, that captions survived before being knocked out determined the writers' average scores.
True to the conventional wisdom, men did better than women, but not by much: Male writers earned an average 0.11 more points than female writers. But what's even more interesting, the researchers say, and what runs contrary to the standard explanations of why men might be funnier, is that men did better with other men: Female raters allocated only an average 0.06 more points to the male writers, while the male raters gave them a significantly higher average of 0.16 more points.
Looks like the guys are preening for each other. Biology can't explain that!
The study: Round 2
Are men's jokes more memorable than women's, and can the author of a funny caption be correctly perceived as male or female given the humorousness of its contents? Enter the memory bias portion of the program:
In a second, related experiment, the researchers tested memory and memory bias to see if men are credited with being funnier than they really are.
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.
So men do win in the analytic breakdown of perceived humor and the ability to be funny on command... but only very barely, and by margins "so small that they can't account for the strength of the belief in the stereotype," according to Laura Mickes, a postdoctoral researcher in the UC San Diego Department of Psychology.
Well. The conclusion seems to be that there is no conclusion. By and large, men may be funnier than women, and women may be funnier than men, but there's no way to standardize humor in a real-life scenario (or, at least, not one which has been studied). So we'll leave the question to you:
As a whole, do you think men really are funnier than women?