"Long before it's in the papers"
January 28, 2015


Is humor tied to male aggression?

Dec. 21, 2007
Courtesy British Medical Journal
and World Science staff

Hu­mor seems to de­vel­op from ag­gres­sion caused by male hor­mones, ac­cord­ing to a study pub­lished in this week’s is­sue of the Brit­ish Med­i­cal Jour­nal.

A dermatologist-researcher in­ves­t­i­gated how peo­ple re­acted to him as he rode a uni­cy­cle—the com­i­cal, one-wheeled bi­cy­cle va­ri­ant long fa­vored by clowns and other whim­si­cal per­son­al­i­ties.

For the doc­tor, Sam Shus­ter of New­cas­tle Un­ivers­ity, U.K., uni­cy­cling be­gan as a hob­by. But it be­came a study of hu­man na­ture as he wheeled about lo­cal streets and no­ticed the mul­ti­tudes of jokes he sparked—of­ten lame and pre­dict­a­ble, he said, and usu­ally from men. Guess­ing this might re­flect a bi­o­log­i­cal phe­nom­e­non, he pro­ceeded in a year-long in­ves­ti­ga­t­ion to doc­u­ment over 400 peo­ple’s re­ac­tions to his one-wheeled jaunts.

Over 90 per­cent re­sponded phys­ic­ally, he found, such as with ex­ag­ger­at­ed stares or waves. Al­most half re­sponded ver­bal­ly—more men than wom­en. He­re, said Shus­ter, sex dif­fer­ences emerged in force: 95 per­cent of adult wom­en praised, en­cour­aged or showed con­cern, while men in­stead un­leashed of­ten-snide jokes 75 per­cent of the time. Equally strik­ing, he said, was the jokes’ re­pet­i­tive­ness. Two thirds re­ferred to the num­ber of wheels, such as “lost your wheel?” 

One of the most con­spic­u­ous find­ings, to Shus­ter, was the way the male re­sponse changed with age.

It started with cu­ri­os­ity in child­hood, years 5 through 12—the same re­ac­tion as young girls. But around the ages of 11 to 13, boys’ re­sponses de­gen­er­ated in­to phys­ical and ver­bal ag­gres­sion, Shus­ter found; these scamps in fact of­ten tried to get him to fall. Re­sponses be­came more ver­bal dur­ing the lat­er teens, turn­ing in­to mock­ing jests or songs, Shus­ter re­ported. This lat­er evolved in­to adult male hu­mor, char­ac­ter­ized by put-downs that Shus­ter as­cribed to la­tent ag­gres­sion. Par­tic­u­larly pug­na­cious re­marks, he said, came from young male mo­torists at the ages of peak viril­ity.

But the com­bat­ive­ness waned as life wore on, Shus­ter found: old­er men gave more neu­tral or friendly re­marks.

Female re­ac­tions, by con­trast, were sub­dued dur­ing pu­ber­ty and late teens—nor­mally evincing indif­fer­ence or min­i­mal ap­prov­al, he said. The re­sponses then evolved in­to the laud­a­to­ry or con­cerned adult female re­sponses.

Uni­cy­cling may be in­trin­sic­ally fun­ny, but that does­n’t ex­plain the find­ings, said Shus­ter—par­tic­u­larly the re­pet­i­tive­ness and dif­fer­ences by sex and age. The wax­ing and wan­ing male re­sponse in par­tic­u­lar, he ar­gued, points to an ex­plana­t­ion in male viril­ity hor­mones such as tes­tos­ter­one, known col­lec­tively as an­dro­gens. The find­ings may al­so shed light on the ev­o­lu­tion of hu­mor, Shus­ter pro­posed: some ag­gres­sion might have been chan­neled in­to ver­bal re­sponses that trans­formed it in­to com­e­dy, which even­tu­ally be­came a sep­a­rate phe­nom­e­non with a life of its own.

* * *

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Humor seems to develop from aggression that flows from male hormones, according to a study published in this week’s issue of the British Medical Journal. A dermatologist-researcher investigated how people reacted to him as he rode on a unicycle—the comical, one-wheeled bicycle-like device long associated with clown acts and whimsical personalities. Unicycling began as a hobby for the doctor, Sam Shuster of Newcastle University, U.K. But the hobby became a study of human nature as wheeled about local streets and noticed the multitudes of jokes—often lame and predictable, he said, and usually from men. Surmising that this might reflect a biological phenomenon, he proceeded in a year-long investigation to document over 400 people’s reactions to his one-wheeled jaunts. Over 90% responded physically, he found, such as with an exaggerated stare or a wave. Almost half responded verbally—more men than women. Here, said Shuster, the sex difference was striking: 95% of adult women praised, encouraged or showed concern, whereas men instead unleashed often-snide jokes 75 percent of the time. Equally striking, he said, was their repetitiveness. Two thirds referred to the number of wheels, such as “lost your wheel?” But one of the most conspicuous findings Shuster said, was the way the male response changed with age. It started with curiosity in childhood, years 5 through 12—the same reaction as young girls. The boys’ responses degenerated into physical and verbal aggression around 11-13, Shuster found; these scamps in fact often tried to get him to fall. Responses became more verbal during the later teens, turning into disparaging jests or songs, Shuster reported. This later evolved into adult male humour, characterized by put-downs that Shuster ascribed to latent aggression. Particularly pugnacious remarks, he said, came from young male motorists at the ages of peak virility. The combativeness waned as life wore on, Shuster found: older men gave more neutral or friendly remarks. Female reactions, by contrast, were subdued during puberty and late teens, normally either apparent indifference or minimal approval, he said. The responses then evolved into the laudatory or concerned adult female responses. Unicycling may be intrinsically funny, but that doesn’t explain the findings, said Shuster—particularly the repetitiveness and differences by sex and age. The waxing and waning male response, he said, in particular points to an explanation in male virility hormones such as testosterone, known collectively as androgens. The findings may also shed light on the evolution of humor, Shuster proposed: Some aggression might have been channeled into verbal responses that transformed it into comedy, which eventually became a separate phenomenon with a life of its own.