That’s not funny…so why am I laughing?

Whenever an election is about to occur, we see stories of the “gender gap,” the difference in voting patterns between men and women.

But there’s another gender gap that perhaps hasn’t had as much attention: the difference in laughing patterns between men and women.

I’ve written before about laughter, but since I’ve noted sadly before now that very few people memorize my columns in their entirety, perhaps a recap is in order. (Or possibly a nightcap, depending on what time you read this.)

The leading laughter researcher is Dr. Robert Provine, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Maryland. He and his assistants eavesdropped on more than 2,000 conversations (over 10 years, not all at once), and discovered that laughs have little to do with humor. In fact, he wrote in his 2000 book Laughter: A Scientific Investigation, “Most prelaugh dialogue is like that of an interminable television situation comedy scripted by an extremely ungifted writer,” with laughter following such side-splitters as “Here comes Mary,” and “Do you have a rubber band?”

Provine believes that laughter evolved from the panting behavior of our ancient ancestors. Chimps and gorillas don’t laugh, but if you tickle them, they make a panting sound. They make the same sound during rough-and-tumble play and chasing games.

Other animals, far more distantly related to most of us (such as rats) also make vocalizations during play and when being tickled, so the roots of laughter appear to lie very deep in our shared mammalian past.

Jaak Panksepp, a Washington State University neuroscientist and psychologist (and the one who found out rats chirp ultrasonically when tickled, and wouldn’t that have been a fun study?) thinks our brains were long-ago hard-wired to produce laughter (or its ultrasonically chirpy equivalent) so that young animals would learn to play with one another: laughter, he thinks, stimulates euphoria and reassures other animals that they are in fact playing, not fighting.

As Provine wrote for MSNBC a few years ago, “These curious ‘ha ha ha’s’ are bits of social glue that bond relationships,” or, if you prefer a less sticky metaphor, a “social lubricant.”

New York Times science writer John Tierney recently wrote about laughter, and gave one example of how it lubricates relationships. Last year at Florida State University social psychologists interviewed undergraduate women, supposedly studying their spending habits. Some were told that a few subjects, at the discretion of the researchers, would receive a substantial cash prize.

The women who were told that, the researchers found, were more likely to laugh at a specific joke (“Two muffins are baking in an oven. One yells, ‘Wow, it’s hot in here!’ The other replies, ‘Holy cow! A talking muffin!’”) than women who weren’t told of any possible prize.

In a follow-up study, women watched the same joke being told on videotape by someone they were supposedly going to be working with on a task. A cash reward was supposedly to be allocated by a designated boss after the task was completed. Some of the women were told they would be the boss of the person on the tape; others were told they would be an underling or co-worker. The researchers found that those designated bosses laughed less.

Similar research has brought to light the aforementioned gender gap.
According to Provine, all speakers laugh more than their listeners, but there are differences by gender. A woman speaking to a female audience laughs about 70 percent more often than her listeners. When she speaks to men, she laughs more than twice as often as her listeners. But when a man speaks to a male audience, he only laughs about 20 percent more than his listeners–and when he speaks to women they actually laugh a little more than he does.

This gender gap starts early. A study in England found that when children watch cartoons, girls laugh more with boys than with girls, and reciprocate boys’ laughter more often.

Another study, by Dr. Joanne Bachorowski, assistant professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University, has found that women watching humorous videos in a lab are likely to laugh more if they’re with a man than with another woman—and at a higher pitch.

Nobody has a good explanation for the gender gap yet. There are two leading theories:

Men: “Men are more humorous than women.”

Women: “Men are more laughable than women.”

And if forced to choose between those theories, I say, “Hey, did you hear the one about the talking muffins?”

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    • Edward Willett on March 14, 2007 at 6:38 pm
    • Reply


    Thanks for the link!

    • Dan4th on March 14, 2007 at 3:13 pm
    • Reply

    Thanks for pointing out Provine’s work. This post was featured on today’s Difference Blog.

    • Chocolat on March 13, 2007 at 9:58 pm
    • Reply

    I’d love for a few of the readers out there to see if this is ‘gender gap’ is true just by rating the jokes on my site

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