A new study in the Journal of Research in Personality provides evidence that men’s written humor tends to be rated as funnier than women’s written humor. But just because the average man appears to be better at producing this type of humor than the average woman — that doesn’t mean some of the funniest people on the planet can’t be women.
“Humor, in general, is a uniquely human experience that doesn’t get enough attention from researchers,” said study author Gil Greengross, a lecturer in psychology at Aberystwyth University.
“I am interested in the role humor plays in mating. Humor is an important trait when choosing a mate. Individuals with a great sense of humor are considered more attractive and fun to be around, but previous research found an interesting difference between men and women.”
“Women value humor ability much more than men do when selecting a mate, while men prefer women who will laugh at their humor. Sex differences in humor ability may reflect the fact that men compete harder with each other to make women laugh, something we suspect has a strong evolutionary basis,” Greengross explained.
“Another reason for this study is the fact that sex differences in cognitive abilities is highly debated these days and we wanted to contribute by creating the first systematic evaluation on the topic of humor ability.”
The researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 28 studies on verbal humor production published between 1976 and 2018, which included a total of 5,057 participants. The researchers excluded previous studies based on self-reported humor and only examined studies in which the judges of humor were blind to the characteristics of the humor creators.
The studies assessed humor production in a variety of ways. The most common method was to present the participants with a cartoon or picture and ask them to create a funny caption for it. Other studies asked participants to write a funny story, write a funny definition for an absurd term, or narrate a film in a funny way.
“People often reduce the debate on sex differences in humor ability to claim that ‘women are not funny’. Our study is more nuanced than that and put the difference in a wider context with both evolutionary and cultural forces that may affect the difference,” Greengross told PsyPost.
“People should understand that the differences we found are quite small, and there are large individual differences in humor ability. Our study means that if you pick a random man and a random woman, there is 60% chance that the man will have higher humor production ability.”
The researchers controlled for a number of potentially confounding variables, including the countries where the data came from, the sex of the authors doing the research, age of participants, and whether there were more men or women judging the humour. But like all research, the study include some caveats.
“The samples in our study are mostly western, so it will be interesting to see how the results hold in other cultures. Also, most humor creativity tasks are somewhat artificial, where people are asked to produce humor in the lab. It is important to see if the differences hold in more natural conversations, where most humor is produced,” Greengross said.
“The results of the study are often portrayed as saying that women are not funny. This is far from what we actually found. We are speaking about averages, and the differences we found are small,” Greengross added.
“Everyone knows women who are very funny, and some of the funniest comedians are women. The study definitely should not discourage women from trying to be funny or to be comedians, as there is ample evidence that a great sense of humor benefits both sexes.”
The study, “Sex differences in humor production ability: A meta-analysis“, was authored by Gil Greengross, Paul J. Silvia, and Emily C. Nusbaum.