Testosterone causes humour? Oh, please

// 21 December 2007

A Norfolk professor has concluded that women are naturally less funny because of lower testosterone levels. What evidence does he have for this? Women were less likely to make stupid jokes when they saw him ride a unicycle through the streets of Newcastle.

As reported by the BBC, Professor Sam Shuster, of Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital found that:

Women tended to make encouraging, praising comments, while men jeered. The most aggressive were young men, he told the British Medical Journal.

He documented the reaction of over 400 individuals to his unicycling antics through the streets of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Almost half of people responded verbally – more being men. Very few of the women made comic or snide remarks, while 75% of the men attempted comedy – mostly shouting out “Lost your wheel?”, for example.

I can’t help but think that it’s hard to read anything more into this than “many men inexplicably find unicycling/extremely predictably jokes about unicycling funny”, or possibly “women are socialised to be supportive rather than ridiculing”.

Not everyone shares my analysis, however:

Dr Nick Neave is a psychologist at the University of Northumbria who has been studying the physical, behavioural, and psychological effects of testosterone.

He suggested men might respond aggressively because they see the other unicycling man as a threat, attracting female attention away from themselves.

“This would be particularly challenging for young males entering the breeding market and thus it does not surprise me that their responses were the more threatening.”

Oh yes, not only are our responses entirely explained away by the compulsion to procreate, but unicyclists are a “threat”. I thought they were meant to be so intrinsically funny that the fact that women don’t compulsively make gags about them on sight proved that we don’t have a sense of humour?

For more confusion, consider Shuster’s own analysis:

Research suggests men are more likely to use humour aggressively by making others the butt of the joke.

And aggression – generally considered to be a more masculine trait – has been linked by some to testosterone exposure in the womb.

Professor Shuster believes humour develops from aggression caused by male hormones.

It’s sort of ridiculous how easily scientists leap to the conclusion that all observed results can be traced back to the womb and/or hormones and/or DNA. Just because a certain trend is documented doesn’t tell you anything ‘scientifically’ about the reasons for it. This is just speculation. Thanks to the BBC for another great example of science reporting.

Photo by SpiralShannon, shared under a Creative Commons license

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