People assume that men use to humor to make themselves look better, which leads to harsher evaluations when their jokes flop, according to new research published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. The findings suggest that men are perceived more negatively for their humor mistakes than women.
“Mistakes are a fact of life. But researchers tend to focus on mistakes only in work-life, where you’re trying to get ahead. This made us wonder about mistakes when you’re not trying to get ahead,” said study author Taly Reich, an associate professor of marketing at Yale School of Management.
“What about mistakes when you’re trying to connect? Humor gave us the perfect lens to frame the question of how people respond to slip-ups in our efforts to befriend rather than get ahead.”
The researchers conducted a series of nine experimental studies, with 5,400 North American participants in total, in which people read about a man or women experiencing a humor failure.
Participants read about a man or woman trying and failing “to crack jokes all night” during a first date that their partner did not seem to enjoy. Participants tended to rate the person as more likable, more competent, and funnier when they were described as a woman compared to when they were described as a man. When the jokes were described as successful, however, there was no difference in ratings between the man and the woman.
Men who unsuccessfully used humor during the first date were also viewed as being less attentive than women who unsuccessfully used humor, “which led to the perception that men’s humor failures were mistakes of greater magnitude, ultimately decreasing men’s likability and perceptions of competence,” the researchers explained.
Reich and her colleagues found evidence that perceived intentions played an important role. Participants tended to view women attempts at humor as a means to connect with others, while men’s attempts at humor were seen as a means to make themselves look better.
“Unfortunately, women often have to tread lightly because their mistakes are more damning than the same mistakes made by men,” Reich told PsyPost. “Our research suggests that this might apply more in the office than, say, on a date or in another setting where the goal is to connect. That is, when the goal isn’t to get ahead, but to build bonds. When women make a mistake in that arena — say, making a joke that doesn’t quite land — observers grant them more leniency than when men slip up in the same way.”
When women were explicitly described as trying to crack jokes to enhance themselves, “their competence and liking fell to levels commensurate with men attempting to enhance themselves,” the researchers said.
Reich and her colleagues found that this effect existed outside of dating contexts as well. Men’s humor failures in the workplace tended to be judged more harshly than women’s humor failures.
“Our results show that women are given more freedom to make mistakes than men in their efforts at humor,” Reich told PsyPost. “But these aren’t hard-set gender differences. It’s more about why others think that the mistake was made in the first place. By default, people usually assume that men are trying to show off or get ahead even with their jokes, whereas women have more noble intentions even if their joke doesn’t land.”
“So, by communicating or signaling an honest attempt to connect, anybody can be forgiven for a bad joke. And it should also be noted that we only looked at jokes that simply weren’t funny, not necessarily jokes that veered into the territory of being inappropriate or offensive.”
The study, “No laughing matter: Why humor mistakes are more damaging for men than women“, was authored by Taly Reich, Sam J. Maglio, and Alexander G. Fulmer.