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The Globe and Mail

Who's funnier, men or women? The answer, no joke

Actress Tina Fey participates in a Live Talks Los Angeles session "Tina Fey: A Conversation With Steve Martin" at Nokia theatre in Los Angeles April 19, 2011.

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters/Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

The debate over whether men or women are funnier has raged everywhere from a well known Vanity Fair piece, Why Women Aren't Funny by Christopher Hitchens, to, very likely, your own kitchen table.

Now, psychology researchers have found a way to quantify the funny. And it turns out men do edge out women. But only by a hair.

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, used a controlled version of The New Yorker's cartoon caption contest and compared how funny male and female caption writers were. (The magazine's cartoon editor is listed as a co-author.)

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"The differences we find between men's and women's ability to be funny are so small that they can't account for the strength of the belief in the stereotype," lead author Laura Mickes, a postdoctoral researcher, said in a statement.

Dr. Mickes and her colleagues ran two experiments. In the first, 16 undergrad men and 16 undergrad women were given 45 minutes to write captions for 20 New Yorker cartoons. They were told to be as funny as possible.

Then, 34 male and 47 female undergrads rated all the captions in a knockout competition – two captions for the same cartoon were pitted against each other, with the winner progressing to a next round and points awarded for each win.

Out of a perfect score of 5, men did better than women, but only by an average of 0.11 points. Men tended to rate men significantly higher than women did – although they too favoured male humour. (Female raters gave an average of 0.06 more points to the male writer, but men gave them a significantly higher average of 0.16.)

"Sad for the guys," co-author Nicholas Christenfeld, a psychology professor, said in a statement, "who think that by being funny they will impress the ladies, but really just impress other men who want to impress the ladies."

But why even the slight edge? While the standard explanations about why men are funnier are often linked to sex-selection and evolutionary theories in which humour operates much as a male peacock's flashy tail does, these researchers speculate that statistics may be in play. Men may see more opportunities to "take a stab" at humour – they could try harder or more frequently, they said.

A second experiment tested for memory bias and found that humour was often misremembered "as having sprung from men's minds."

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Now there's a dinner party conversation starter for you. And a natural postprandial parlour game: Dig up those old New Yorkers you can't bear to toss into the recycling bin and stage a humour study of your own.

How do you think this study will influence people's stereotypes when it comes to which sex is funnier?

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About the Author

Tralee Pearce has been a reporter at The Globe and Mail since 1999, starting as a writer in the paper’s Style section. She joined the new Life section for its launch in 2007. She covers parenting and family issues for the daily section. More

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