(Updated) If men are funnier than women, then it’s not by much — and mostly just to other men. Such is the conclusion of a new study by psychologists at the University of California, San Diego, who judged comic wit by asking students to write original captions for New Yorker cartoons.
Setting aside the fact that writing New Yorker cartoon captions is notoriously difficult, even for people who do funny for a living, and setting aside the question of whether caption-writing is really the best barometer of “funny” in the natural world, researchers asked 32 undergrads, split evenly between males and females, to come up with captions for 20 cartoons in 45 minutes and “to be as funny as possible.”
The 640 resulting captions were then judged in a series of knockout contests. For each cartoon, the captions were randomly paired up and pitted against each other (the writers were kept anonymous), with readers — 34 male and 47 female students — choosing the funnier of each successive pair. Round 1 included 32 captions, whittled down to 16 survivors; Round 2 shrank that pool to eight, and so on. The further each caption advanced, the higher its score, earning 1 point for each round.
Overall, the study found, men’s captions did better than women’s, by a nose, scoring just 0.11 points higher — a margin that was “just at the edge of detectability,” as co-author Nicholas Christenfeld, a UCSD professor of psychology, noted. That slight advantage was due largely to the fact that men found other men’s humor funnier than women did. On average, male raters gave male writers’ jokes 0.16 more points, while female raters gave only 0.06 points more to male-written captions.
Wrote Inga Kiderra, a director of communications at UCSD, in a particularly delightful press release for the university:
“Sad for the guys,” Christenfeld said, “who think that by being funny they will impress the ladies, but really just impress other men who want to impress the ladies.”
Interestingly, in a second, related experiment, the researchers found that when presented with the 100 funniest and least funny captions from the first experiment, readers not only tended to remember the funnier jokes better, but also, upon being asked to guess the gender of the writers, more often misattributed the funny captions to guys and the unfunny ones to women. That was true for both the male and female readers.
What’s more, when the study’s original caption writers were asked to predict their own performance, the men’s self-confidence far exceeded the women’s; men predicted their captions would score 2.3 on average, while women gave themselves a more modest 1.5. Based on those numbers, it appears that men’s confidence also outstripped their actual competence, the authors concluded.
So, why does the men-are-funnier stereotype persist? It may just be a matter of cultural exposure, says lead author, Laura Mickes, a postdoctoral researcher in UCSD’s psychology department: “We go around observing women laughing at men, men laughing at men, men as comedians, men asserting that they are funnier, and, most likely, men trying harder — none of which requires them to actually be more capable of producing humor.”
Mickes summed up the findings this way to ABC News: “There is some shred of truth to the received wisdom about men being funnier, but it does not come close to explaining how much funnier they think they are.”
That, I chuckled at.
The new paper, currently in press, is slated to be published online this week by the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.
Update [2:25 p.m.]: This post has been updated with a comment from the study’s lead author, Laura Mickes.
Sora Song is the editor of TIME Healthland. Find her on Twitter at @sora_song. You can also continue the discussion on Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.