Thursday, September 22, 2016

"The funny thing about evolutionary psychology..."

Am I funny? For years, I thought so.  When I first learned to speak, I would memorize jokes. Without knowing the meaning or context, deliver them to crowds of family at holidays. I would always follow the punch line with my signature (surely copyright infringing) “wakka wakka wakka!” From adolescence through my teenage years, I fancied myself a real comedic savant. But what does this have to do with feminism?

My childhood friend Haley is funny. Much funnier than me. A couple of years ago she told me about a study on gender and humor. Laura Mickes of UC San Diego conducted the study, which attempted to quantify which gender was funnier.

Mickes and her team had participants fill out their own captions for New Yorker cartoons. The participants rated other participant cartoons, they rated their own performance, and they then revisited the cartoons and guessed the writer’s gender. In the original rating, cartoons by men were rated .11 points higher (on a 5-point scale) than those by women.  Two things stand out from this round of the study. First, though both genders found the men created funnier cartoons, the support was stronger among other men. Second, the men used more sexual humor and profanity in their captions, but this style wasn't utilized in the highest rated entries. Put another way, the lewd humor was not effective. 

The follow up experiments had the most damning results. Men rated themselves an average of 2.3 on the 5-point scale, and women rated themselves an average 1.5. And when reexamining the cartoons (and not being told the gender of the writer) both men and women falsely attributed the higher rated cartoons to men and the lower rated cartoons to women. So while the men were technically funnier in the study it was marginal. Further, the men were wildly inconsistent and received much more credit than they deserved.  

I have looked at other studies and comedic differences between the genders exist, because evolutionary psychology has a lot to say on these phenomena. Men overwhelmingly tell more jokes in social settings, and thus unsurprisingly fail more often. In an interview with The Atlantic evolutionary psychologist Gil Greengross put it simply: “it's worth it. If you fail and you're not funny, you lost maybe a few minutes. But if the person laughs, the benefit can be huge.”

Evolutionary psychology is a social and natural science approach that considers psychological issues through the lens of modern evolutionary perspectives. Essentially it is one attempt at answering the nature versus nurture debate. One of the primary vehicles for psychological adaptations is sexual selection. To an evolutionary psychologist, a lot of our social constructs can be explained as tools that facilitated mating for our ancestors.  Humor is associated with intelligence; in fact some studies show the two correlate. Intelligence being an important attribute in dating and mating, the comedic desperations of men appears as a natural outcome. Men are pressured to be as funny as possible as much as possible, because life itself depends on it. 

Evolutionary psychology and feminism can seem at odds. The latter is often misconstrued as biological determinism, which is a favored excuse for misogynistic behavior. However, I think the theoretical framework is useful and should be considered. I plan to examine the relationship of evolutionary psychology and feminism in a later blog post. 

As I researched evolutionary psychology for this post, I was reminded of our discussions of cultural feminism.  The theoretical framework of evolutionary psychology could bolster cultural feminism’s embrace of  gender differences. By attempting to understand gender differences, by finding the evolutionary benefits that may correlate with gender differences, our society can attach value to those differences. We can celebrate how the ethic of care has benefited us. Last, we can fight against unfounded assumptions such as that men are inherently funnier. Men are not innately the more humorous gender; we are just trying a bit too hard. When you throw enough mud at the wall, some of it is bound to stick.

Mickes' study and Greengross' related study respectively:

 ( (Link to Atlantic article quoting Gil Greengross)

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