Once I heard a bit of advice spoken by one adolescent boy to another. “Do you want to know if a girl likes you? Tell a really stupid joke, the stupider the better. If she laughs, she likes you.” It has been obvious for eons that laughter has a sexual side. I am not referring to sex as the subject of humor, but the differences in the way that people of different genders perceive what is funny and how they respond with laughter.
Allan Reiss and colleagues of Stanford University studied the response of male and female brains when reading comics. To a large degree they used similar parts of the brain–the part that makes sense of semantics and juxtaposition of ideas. The difference is brain function between genders existed but barely. It was not possible to tell who was male or female by viewing the response results. The part of brain that deals with executive processing were activated more in the women’s’ brains than the men’s. The reward center in the female brain was also more active when they found a comic funny. But this increased activity was minimal.
Let’s return to our first example. If an adolescent boy told a really stupid joke, a typical female laughing in response would be an indication of approval. His male peers would be more likely to respond with a kind of laughter known as scoffing, to show him how stupid the joke really was. Boys, and even men, commonly use humor as a kind of competitive social tactic. We ignore the way males poke fun at other males. However, when adolescent girls laugh at other girls in a ridiculing manner, they are considered “mean girls,” the kind of cliquish queen bees who use cruel humor to maintain their superiority over others.
Women’s humor is expected to be socially supportive, whether they are laughing at a man’s not so funny joke, or laughing with their female friends about a common situation. According to Don Nilsen, a linguistics professor at Arizona State University, a woman who employs the typically aggressive or competitive male sense of humor will find both men and women critical of her.
So what about men who laugh in the way that society prescribes for women, in an appeasing manner that shows support? Men do laugh that way often–in front of their bosses. Humor is not affected as much by the way genders perceive what is funny–their brain function have very minute differences according to the Stanford study–as it is by role society has assigned them. Most people will laugh at humor based what their society sees fit for their gender and their status.
A. Reiss, MD, the Howard C. Robbins Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research. Dean Mobbs, Nov. 7 online issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
W. Lawson, “Humor’s Sexual Side” Psychology Today, article 200508, published on September 1, 2005 – last reviewed on December 20, 2012