Is it just sexist disregard of hilarious women? But why is it usually boys who play the 'joker' in class and why does everyone seem to laugh more readily at men's ‘humour’, especially if they're senior?
Some of this is obviously cultural. In countries where sexist discrimination has decreased, there are now more female comics. Social media may have also enabled talented women to shine, leapfrogging misogynist gatekeepers. But is this gender gap entirely malleable?
Evolutionary psychologists Gil Greengross and Geoffrey Miller argue that men are objectively funnier because it signalled intelligence and attracted mates.
I’m not convinced. Guys joke around together, regardless of women. Further, if witty wordplay is merely a function of creative intelligence, it makes no sense that men should be more capable, since female intelligence was clearly favoured by evolution.
Curious to understand this conundrum, I chatted to Evolutionary Psychologist Robin Dunbar. What follows is the contents of our emails, tidied up.
N.B. We're not implying binary sex differences, but two overlapping clusters of characteristics.
Laughter triggers endorphins and cultivates solidarity
“Bonding” is the answer from Robin Dunbar. When we laugh, our brains upregulate endorphins (shown by PET imaging). While watching a comedy sketch, people become more tolerant of pain. When we amuse our pals and cause them to cackle, that gleeful delight is gregarious. The whole group laughs at once, so bonds closely together.
Our ancestors were probably giggling before they could talk. If a neanderthal could entertain his troop, foster goodwill, and mitigate tension, then they would have been more able to happily live alongside one another. Absent this emotional cohesion, large groups of primates become stressed, vexed, infertile and homicidal. So they splinter into smaller bands, which then struggle to defend themselves against aggressors. Humans overcame this trap and scaled up solidarity through religious rituals, language and laughter. Male friendships are often like being part of a club. This may hark back to evolution, when men allied together to defend against predators. How do men secure their position in that club? One among many possible strategies is by making them laugh. A boy who is bullied in class might josh around, play the buffoon and turn bullies into allies. Female friendships, by contrast, are usually more personalised and dyadic. Laughter would certainly be helpful, but would be less likely to involve public performances to an entire cohort.
If a man wants to lure a lady, she may be coy and justifiably suspicious. She craves love, he's thinking about a quickie. But if he can make her laugh and trigger endorphins, then perhaps she will relax, even let her guard down. Here, Dunbar argues, it’s not so much about signalling intelligence, but making her smile.
A woman is more likely to laugh if she finds a man attractive. Laughter does not actually track objective hilarity, emphasises Neuroscience Professor Sarah Scott. She laughs if she likes him.
Mediocre men get all the laughs
So, if men jest and jostle as part of group bonding, while women laugh to signal sexual interest, then everyone will lap up male comedians. Both sexes will roar with applause. Female comedians face a far greater challenge (as first noticed by the late Neuroscientist Robert Povine).
The upshot of all this is that even if my smutty puns are downright brilliant, you just won't see the funny side. Commiserations on your inability to appreciate true artistry.. 😜
And thanks to my pal Dunbar, who has taught me so much about evolutionary psychology and neuroscience. I'm now enraptured by questions of what triggers endorphins and why.