January 09, 2008
Testosterone Causes Aggressive Humor?

Does humor flow from the desire of males to demonstrate their virility?

Humour appears to develop from aggression caused by male hormones, according to a study published in this week’s Christmas issue of the BMJ.

Professor Sam Shuster conducted a year long study observing how people reacted to him as he unicycled through the streets of Newcastle upon Tyne. What began as a hobby turned into an observational study after he realized that the huge number of stereotypical and predictable responses he received must be indicative of an underlying biological phenomenon.

The study was an observation of people’s reactions to a sudden unexpected exposure to a new phenomenon - in this case unicycling, which at the time few had seen. He documented the responses of over 400 individuals, and observed the responses of many others.

Over 90% of people responded physically, for example with an exaggerated stare or a wave. Almost half responded verbally – more men than women. Here, says Professor Shuster, the sex difference was striking. 95% of adult women were praising, encouraging or showed concern. There were very few comic or snide remarks. In contrast, only 25% of adult men responded as did the women, for example, by praise or encouragement; instead 75% attempted comedy, often snide or combative as an intended put-down.

Equally striking, he says, was the repetitive and predictable nature of the comments from men; two thirds of their ‘comic’ responses referred to the number of wheels - “Lost your wheel?”, for example.

Professor Shuster also noticed the male response differed markedly with age, moving from curiosity in childhood (years 5-12) – the same reaction as young girls, - to physical and verbal aggression in boys aged 11-13 who often tried to get him to fall off the unicycle.

Responses became more verbal during the later teens, turning into disparaging ‘jokes’ or mocking songs. This then evolved into adult male humour – characterized by repetitive, humorous verbal put-downs concealing a latent aggression. Young men in cars were particularly aggressive. Professor Shuster notes that this is the age when men are at the peak of their virility. The ‘jokes’ were lost with age as older men responded more neutrally and amicably with few attempts at a jovial put-down.

The female response by contrast, was subdued during puberty and late teens – normally either apparent indifference or minimal approval. It then evolved into the laudatory and concerned adult female response.

What I'd like to see: A study of female comics where their blood testosterone levels are compared to the average testosterone levels of women of similar age, socio-economic background, and so on. My guess is that female comics have more testosterone than the average woman.

What is the evolutionary purpose or intent of male humor? To demonstrate reproductive fitness to women by showing wit and cleverness? Or to make other men feel inferior and less likely to compete for women? Or some other purpose?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 January 09 11:42 PM  Brain Sexuality

Audacious Epigone said at January 10, 2008 4:09 AM:

Since male humor tends to be tempered rather than accentuated in the presence of women, making other men feel inferior seems more plausible to me.

Joshua Macy said at January 10, 2008 4:35 AM:

That article was a joke, published in the traditional humor issue of the BMJ. See, e.g. http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/005246.html at Language Log.

Sam said at January 10, 2008 8:06 AM:

Is it that the article's findings are facetious? Or just that light-hearted, "isn't that odd"-type articles tend to get published in the Christmas issue of the BMJ? The findings certainly fit my preconceptions about male aggression and humor. It seems so strange that a medical journal would publish a fake article without any disclaimer or note!

Joshua Macy said at January 10, 2008 1:42 PM:

The BMJ apparently has a tradition of publishing facetious articles as part of its Christmas issue. The cover story ( http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/335/7633/1299 ) is on the genetic basis of magic, based on a review of the literature (in this case, the Harry Potter novels).

The humor "study" consisted of a retired dermatologist riding a unicycle around an English city for a year and recording his impressions of peoples reactions, and then just attributing those differences to testosterone and sexual selection.

momochan said at January 10, 2008 1:51 PM:

My guess is that humor evolved to *defuse* aggression among humans. Social animals like primates need to balance two opposing tendencies, agressiveness (to promote self interest) and submissiveness (to maintain social bonds and structure). I heard that a group of bonobos, when encountering a new food source, will first have sex all around -- the theory being that this prevents any intra-group competition for food descending into mayhem.
So humor may be a sophisticated, human way to challenge someone who's not in line. The humorist can always make the excuse "I was just joking!" (and many do), thereby heading off a brouhaha.

Matthew said at January 10, 2008 3:02 PM:

it's a post like this that keeps this website going. Enjoyed it, thanks.

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