Think about someone you know who has a great sense of humor. Are you thinking of a man or a woman? Most people, when asked this question, imagine a man. There is a prevalent stereotype that men are funnier than women, a stereotype that is shared by both men and women. But is it true?

My new study with Paul Silvia and Emily Nusbaum from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro put the stereotype to the test. We systematically reviewed all available studies that looked at sex differences in humor ability, and, using a statistical tool called meta-analysis, we calculated the difference across all of those studies. Before I reveal the results, let me explain what we did.

Humor is a complex phenomenon, and one important aspect of it is the ability to make others laugh. We called this ability ”humor production ability,’ which is distinct from appreciating and enjoying humor. When looking at who is the funnier sex, we focused only on humor production ability.

To do so, we tracked down all available research studies that objectively evaluated humor ability and excluded studies where people evaluated their own humor ability. We also did not include studies where the people who evaluated a person’s humor knew the sex of the person, such as when students rated how humorous their teachers were. When people know a person’s sex, their judgments of his or her humor might be affected by the stereotype that men are funnier than women.

What studies were included? In a typical study that met our inclusion criteria, research participants were shown a stimulus, usually a cartoon without a caption. Then the participants were asked to write a funny caption for the cartoon. Later, research assistants rated the captions for funniness on a 5-point scale (from “not at all funny” to “extremely funny"). The key for such tasks is that the raters do not know anything about the people who produced the humor, including their sex. Such procedures raised our confidence that we were measuring true humor ability with little influence of the stereotype.

We found 28 studies that met our criteria. The combined sample across all studies included 5,057 participants (67 percent of them women). Studies were from various countries, including the U.S., U.K., Hungary, Germany, and Israel. Most of the data (60 percent) had not been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

We then calculated differences between ratings of men’s and women’s humor on the entire sample and found that men were, overall, rated as funnier than women. How big was the difference? In simple terms, 63 percent of men scored above the average humor ability of women. Put in another way, there is roughly a 60% chance that a randomly selected man will have a better humor-production ability than a randomly selected woman. This isn’t a whopping difference—there’s a 40% chance that a randomly selected woman will have better humor ability than a randomly selected man. But, still, it’s a notable difference.

We also examined a long list of possible variables that might explain this difference. For example, we looked at the countries the data come from, the sex of the authors doing the research, the age of participants, and whether there were more men or women judging the humor—but none of it made a difference in our analysis.

Why would men have higher humor-production ability than women on average? One possibility is that the view that women are less funny is so pervasive that societal forces discourage girls and women from developing and expressing their humor, making women less likely to be perceived as funny.

Another possible explanation may be rooted in our biology and the important role that humor plays in attracting mates. Humor is strongly correlated with intelligence, a crucial ability that contributed to our survival throughout our evolutionary history when we mostly lived in hunter-gatherer groups. Women, who undertake the heavier costs of reproduction (pregnancy, breastfeeding) are choosier than men when selecting a mate. Thus, women look for various signals or indicators of men’s quality as a mate, and a great sense of humor may be one of them because it reflects intelligence.

Men, on the other hand, prefer women who laugh at their humor. That means that over our evolutionary history, men probably had to compete with other men to impress women with their sense of humor. Plenty of evidence supports this view: women indicate that it’s very important to find a man with a good sense of humor, while men generally do not place a high value on women's humor production ability.

What does it all mean? To the best of our knowledge, on average, men appear to have higher humor production ability than women. The fact that men, on average, appear to be funnier than women does not imply that every man is funnier than every woman. There are many great female comedians such as Sarah Silverman, Tina Fey, Ali Wong, and historically, Lucille Ball, Joan Rivers, Carol Burnett, and many, many more. All these great comedians are funnier than most men. Thus, each person should be judged on their own humor ability and not by their group’s average.

For Further Reading

Greengross, G., Silvia, P. J., & Nusbaum, E. C. (2020). Sex differences in humor production ability: A meta-analysis. Journal of Research in Personality84, 103886.

Gil Greengross is a lecturer in the Department of Psychology at Aberystwyth University.