There’s an abundance of research on the social advantages that come with a strong sense of humor.
Humor conveys intelligence. Funny people are seen as more confident and competent. The ability to crack a joke shows social ease and can turn awkward elevator silence into a golden moment of human connection.
His research found that people who effectively used humor were more likely to be elected to leadership positions.
Today, girls are encouraged to be ambitious and athletic, opinionated and outspoken. We want them focused on STEM and outfitted in T-shirts that read, “Who runs the world? Girls.”
But what if raising truly empowered girls also means raising funny ones? What if we teach young women that humor is their turf — just as much as any boy’s?
Peter McGraw, director of the Humor Research Lab at the University of Colorado, thinks that, empirically speaking, women are just as funny as men.
But when Robert Provine, a neuroscientist at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County, camped out at food courts and campus quads documenting instances of laughter, he found that men got the most laughs.
“Both men and women are more likely to laugh if a male is talking to them,” says Provine, author of “Laughter: A Scientific Investigation.”
McGraw concludes that there is something societal going on, not biological. And it comes down to risks and rewards. Every crack at humor involves risk — the joke could fall flat. Women may not see as much upside, even when they land the joke.
“Are women differentially rewarded or punished for breaches of social and cultural norms? If the answer to that question is yes, which I believe it is, you can see how that would tamp down the likelihood that women would try to be funny,” he says.
A lot of girls are told they aren’t supposed to laugh loudly.
“You get your period and you start laughing only in the girls’ room,” explains Gina Barreca, a professor at the University of Connecticut who writes extensively about women and humor. “It gets put in the kitchen. It gets put in the women’s room — single-sex environments.”
Why does this happen just as boys and girls start to get romantically interested in one another? Evolutionary biologists offer a prevailing theory: Humor indicates intelligence, which indicates a higher likelihood of gainful employment, and thus the ability to keep future offspring well fed. Cave women may have looked for physical brawn in mates, but modern ladies seek smarts — so for guys, cracking jokes at a cocktail party is a good way to peacock IQ points.
But McGraw argues that by stunting women out of expressing their humor in mixed company, we’re shortchanging everybody.
“People really do want the women in their life to be funny,” he says. “Funny people are better company. They make the world an easier, more enjoyable place.”