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March 17, 2007

Laugh Whores: Why Are Women So Easy When It Comes To Giggles?

I've been meaning to write about this. Honestly.

It's not quite the same as the long-running argument about whether men are actually funnier than women and, if so, why. But why do women give it up so easily, laughter wise, like such tawdry giggle-strumptets? Why are women such chuckle-whores?

John Tierney addresses it here:

When men and women converse, “females are the leading laughers, but males are the best laugh getters,” Professor Provine explains in his 2000 book, “Laughter: A Scientific Investigation.” He reached this conclusion by noting each time laughter occurred in a conversation and recording who laughed — the speaker, the audience, or both.

Overall, he found that speakers outlaughed their audiences by close to 50 percent. But the pattern varied enormously according to gender.

When a woman spoke to a female audience, she laughed about 70 percent more often than her listeners. When she spoke to men, the ratio got more lopsided: she laughed more than twice as often as the guys listening to her.

When a man was speaking to a male audience, he laughed about 20 percent more than the audience. But when he was speaking to women, they laughed a little more — about 8 percent — than he did.

“As audiences,” Professor Provine writes, “both males and females were more selective in whom they laughed at or with than they were as speakers — neither males nor females laughed as much at female as male speakers.” He notes that another study in England found a gender gap starting at an early age: “Among children viewing cartoons, girls laughed more with boys than with girls, and girls reciprocrated boys’ laughter more often than boys reciprocated girls’ laughter.”

Some answers about the laugh-gap were offered by readers. The feminists didn't take very long to blame it on the male patriarchy:

1. Women are lower status. “For all that the sexual revolution has changed gender relationships in the West,” Annie wrote, “there are still huge differences in social position between the genders. Women are still lower on the social scale than men, and that may well explain why they laugh more, especially when they are in the presence of men.”

2. Women are kinder and more empathetic. “I often laugh not because someone is especially funny,” a woman named Jackie commented,
“but because I sense that the person/speaker wishes to be found funny, and I want to be kind o that person. I think the gender gap persists because . . . women intuit emotional signals differently/ more finely than men, so more often pick up on the cues as to when someone wishes to be found funny and . . . men more often want to be found funny.”

And then comes the guys arguing back:

3. Men are funnier — or at least they try harder and take more risks to be funny. Greg wrote: “I believe men are more willing to be funny (and may in fact be funnier–though I am not sure). Women, again in my experience, are much less willing–for whatever reason to appear to be silly, contrarian, disrespectful–many of the sources of good humor.”

But that seems inapposite to me, or at least it's not the question I was wondering about a few weeks back. Again, put aside that men are, arguably, funnier-- it's still the case that a funny guy gets bigger laughs from women than with men.

The researcher shot down the feminist-ish claims:

I ran these theories by Robert Provine, the University of Maryland researcher whose field research in laughter was described in my column. He saw merit in all of them, although he cautioned that anyone who tries to explain why he or she laughs is in danger of rationalizing the irrational. “Males don’t decide to laugh less in the presence of females, or females to laugh more in the presence of males,” Professor Provine said. “They just do it.”

Women don't seem to laugh much more at tv shows or movies (maybe they even laugh less at that), but do seem to laugh more at humor in real-life humor situations.

I don't know why this is myself. But, taking a few guesses:

1. As a rule, women simply find particularly-male humor funnier than men find particularly-female humor.

2. Women have an innate giggle-reaction in socially awkward situations to reduce tension. It's not so much they try to laugh to relieve social awkwardness; they just do. So a joke made, bad or not, is either going to get a laugh because it's funny or because it's unfunny and laughter is a nice way to conceal the awkwardness of a bad joke.

3. Men don't laugh at each other's jokes as much do to learned behavior of social competition. Giving another guy a laugh is giving him a small amount of credit in a social competition, and men have been conditioned not to do so. I know a lot of funny guys and, mostly, getting a laugh out of them is difficult -- partly because they just seem to not want to laugh, and when they do, there's a bit of a "Okay, you got me, I didn't want to, but you managed it" submission to a joke.

I do that a bit myself. A joke from a guy not only has to be funny in the first place, it has to be funny enough to overcome my egotistical reluctance to give someone else his props. Especially when it's a guy, but that trained behavior carries over to jokes made by women as well.

Women don't consider funniness an important attractor of the opposite sex, so they don't have the conditioned reluctance to laugh at each other's jokes or to men's, either. They don't mind laughing at a fellow female joke-teller because they haven't been conditioned to find anything threatening, in a social-competition regard, from a funny girl. And so they don't have that conditioned response to male humor, either (and, in fact, there's probably a bit of conditioning to laugh at men trying to be funny, because men like women they can make laugh).

4. Girls just have the giggles. That simple.

The thing about women deciding to laugh is silly, because real laughs are involuntary. Women do fake-laugh more than guys, but their hearts are usually not in it, and whether or not these little chuckle-sluts have managed to convincingly fake an orgasm, none has managed to convincingly fake a genuine laugh.


Simple Explanation? I wrote in the comments that women tend to laugh in anticipation of a joke well before the actual payoff comes.

What could account for that? Well, how about mirror neurons?

Mirror neurons have been linked to empathy, because certain brain regions (in particular the anterior insula and inferior frontal cortex) are active when a person experience an emotion (disgust, happiness, pain etc) and when they see another person experience an emotion. However, these brain regions are not quite the same as the ones which mirror hand actions, and mirror neurons for emotional states or empathy have not yet been described in monkeys. More recently, Keysers and colleagues have shown that people that are more empathic according to self-report questionnaires have stronger activations both in the mirror system for hand actions and the mirror system for emotions providing more direct support to the idea that the mirror system is linked to empathy.

Basically, mirror neurons have been studied in monkeys but haven't yet been proven to exist in humans. Though why wouldn't they?

If one sees someone yawning, one yawns oneself. Movies are great at tear-jerking because they can do what a novel can't, actually show a real live human being crying, which provokes a mirror neuron response in the viewer and causes crying.

If one accepts that women are more empathetic than men (which is all but undeniable), and guesses further that this is because they have more mirror neurons than men (likely, since women often can't watch violent scenes in horror movies, as they simply provoke too great and unpleasant a response), then one might guess that women laugh more, especially in anticipation of a punchline, because their mirror neurons are already firing in response to the beginnings of a witty remark or joke. The mirror neurons read "humor" in the weisenheimer, and cause a similar response in the viewer. And women, having more of these buggers (or more strongly operating buggers), thus tend to laugh more easily just at the sight of someone breaking into a humorous posture.

I think that's probably it. Women seem to like the American version of The Office, though they find it cringe-inducing, but relatively few can bear to watch the original British version, because it's just too painful in terms of social horror. Men have fewer mirror neurons, and thus can stand a higher threshold of social horror.

I've been noticing lately that, for me, a laugh usually doesn't come in a movie when someone says something absurd or stupid. The laugh actually comes at the reaction shot of people staring at the moron. Now, why should that be? I'm just as capable of recognizing stupidity as fake characters on a screen. Why does my laugh response wait until I see my own feeling reflected on the faces of other witnesses to the stupidity?

Mirror neurons, I'm guessing. Happens in real life, too. When someone really puts their foot in it, you can avoid laughing at them... until someone else looks at you with that "Did that shit just happen?" forced deadpan. Then you just can't help laughing, even if you were politely trying not to.

Or maybe that's just an entirely different thing I'm trying to rope into One Big Explanation.


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posted by Ace at 04:09 PM

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