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 the sexes 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 that used similar parts of the brain, those used of to make sense of semantics and juxtaposition of ideas in speech. However the part of brain that deals with executive processing where activated more in the womens’ brains than the men’s. Part of the mesolimbic reward center was more active for women when they found a comic funny, which indicated that finding humor was both more pleasurable and unexpected for them.
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 humiliation. We tend to think nothing of the way they poke fun at other males, putting each other down. 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 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, finds that both men and other women are critical of her.
So what about men who laugh in the way that society proscribes for women to laugh? In an appeasing manner that shows cohesiveness with the ideas of those around them? Yes, men laugh that way… in front of their bosses. So the sexual side of humor is not affected as much by the way genders perceive what is funny – the brain functions only have slight differences according to the Standford study – as it is by role society has assigned to humor for each of the genders.
Photo from Deutsche Fotothek
Allan 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.
Willow Lawson, “Humor’s Sexual Side” Psychology Today, article 200508, published on September 1, 2005 – last reviewed on December 20, 2012