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Editorial

Don't make us laugh

Are men funnier than women? A study says so, but just barely.

October 25, 2011

A new study says that men are funnier than women — but just barely. In fact, the most remarkable finding in the UC San Diego report is that men are only a little funnier than women, despite the public perception that they are way more hilarious.

In the study, to be published online this week in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 16 male and 16 female college students were each asked to write captions for 20 New Yorker cartoons. Later, another group of college students, unaware of who wrote what, rated pairs of captions for each cartoon, choosing which was funnier. The winning captions were then pitted against each other in a knock-out style tournament. Overall, men's captions beat women's by 0.11 points out of a perfect score of 5.

Then the researchers brought in another group of participants and asked them to guess the caption writers' gender. Not surprisingly, the funny captions were more often wrongly attributed to men and the not-so-funny captions were more often incorrectly attributed to women.

Of course, people were debating whether men are funnier than women long before Phyllis Diller hit the Borscht Belt. And the debate continues even though most significant issues of parity between the sexes have been settled by now. Men and women are equally smart, should be paid the same for the same work, and are equally capable of running corporations and countries. For those who don't think so, there are anti-discrimination laws to remind them.

But the question of which is funnier is apparently still open to argument.

So why might men be even marginally funnier than women? The classic explanation is sociobiological: Men believe women will choose a funny guy over a handsome (unfunny) guy, thus making them highly motivated to work at it. Whether that theory is true, no one knows for sure; the funny gene hasn't yet been isolated.

However, that doesn't account for the men who work too hard at it. There's nothing less funny than a guy who thinks he's funnier than he is.

We do know this: There's a dearth of people — of either sex — who can truly make you double over, gasping for breath. At the end of the day, it's nice if anybody at all made you laugh, regardless of gender.

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