In 2007, Christopher Hitchens wrote an essay for Vanity Fair arguing that, on the whole, women aren’t very funny. It was meant to elicit a strong reaction (as proof, the word “provocation” appears above the headline) and, boy, did it. Even now, four years later, the essay still comes up. In her new book, Bossypants, Tina Fey takes Hitchens on: “It is an impressively arrogant move to conclude that because you don’t like something, it is empirically not good,” she writes. “I don’t like Chinese food, but I don’t write articles trying to prove it doesn’t exist.”
Well, here’s some empirical data. Researchers asked 200 women and 200 men to write as many captions for three caption-less New Yorker cartoons as they could in ten minutes. They then had a panel rate the funniness of those captions on a scale from one to seven. The results: Men had “higher average humor production ability” — i.e., they wrote more funny captions.
Researchers also found that participants who scored higher on tests of abstract intelligence and verbal ability were funnier. What’s more, participants who wrote more funny captions had a higher number of sex partners. Interestingly, this was true for both men and women.
So men are funnier, right? Perhaps. But measuring humor is notoriously difficult. Not everyone finds the same things funny, for starters. Plus, as the researchers admit, writing captions for cartoons isn’t everyday behavior. Most of us attempt to be funny on the phone with a friend, over the dinner table, or in the hallway at work. In those cases, it’s more about being aware of your audience and sensitive to timing, inflection, and so forth, rather than scrambling to crank out hilarious captions while a stopwatch ticks in the background.
But testing humor in normal settings has problems, too. Earlier research has found a relationship between whether someone is perceived as funny and that person’s status and physical attractiveness. For instance, one study concluded that women find funny men more attractive than un-funny men, but only if those funny men are also good-looking. That one-liner is snappier if it comes out of George Clooney’s mouth.
Plus, men may be more motivated to be funny. A 2006 study found that while women deemed funny men more attractive, the reverse wasn’t true. As a sidenote, that study also found that funnier people were considered less intelligent, though the evidence from multiple studies suggests that they’re smarter than their less humorous counterparts.
Of course being funny and having a sense of humor aren’t the same. Studies have indicated that women are more discerning judges of humor, maybe because finding a male partner who is funny is more important to them. Then again, men and women are often drawn to different types of humor (Sex and the City vs., say, Adam Sandler movies) therefore it’s not always obvious which jokes deserve a guffaw and which a groan.
So nothing is settled, and perhaps never can be. But this much is clear: Tina Fey is funnier than Christopher Hitchens.
(The study is titled “Humor ability reveals intelligence, predicts mating success, and is higher in males.” It was published in the journal Intelligence, and the authors are Gil Greengross and Geoffrey Miller.)