November 8, 2005

Scientists: remember to portray whatever you find to be true of women as superior.

I've said it before, and I must repeat, the rule is: If you do scientific research into the differences between men and women, you must portray whatever you find to be true of women as superior. And when you read reports about scientific research into the differences between men and women, use the hypothesis that the scientists are following that rule. It makes reading the reports quite humorous.

Take this one, for example, which happens to be about humor. Some Stanford University scientists wired up men and women, showed them a bunch of cartoons, and watched the way their brains lit up:
But some brain regions were activated more in women, including both the left prefrontal cortex and the mesolimbic reward centre.

The researchers say their findings suggest women place a greater emphasis on the language of humour, possibly employing a more analytical approach.

They also believe that the women in the study were less likely to expect the cartoons to be funny - so when they were, their pleasure centre lit up with greater intensity than their male counterparts.

Professor Reiss said: "Women appeared to have less expectation of a reward, which in this case was the punch line of the cartoon.

"So when they got to the joke's punch line, they were more pleased about it."

The researchers also found that the funnier the cartoon, the more the reward centre was activated in women.

That was not the case in men who seemed to "expect" the cartoons to be funny from the start.

Professor Reiss said the finding that women's reward centres might be more sensitive to emotional stimuli, if confirmed by follow-up studies, might explain why they appear to be more vulnerable to depression....

However, he told the BBC News website: "I would agree that women are much more analytical in terms of humour, but to extrapolate from this study, and draw conclusions about clinical depression is probably a step too far."
To test my theory about whether scientists are following my rule, try rewriting their conclusions as if they were following the opposite rule. That is, take the same basic data, and write their statements as if they were leaning exactly as much toward portraying what is true of the male as superior.

I remember the days when people would routinely and openly characterize whatever was true of the male as superior, and I'm glad those days are over (at least in the U.S.). But leaning in the other direction isn't the answer. It's patronizing. And it's unscientific! I understand the motivation of the scientists, though. I think they have reason to be afraid not to couch their findings this way.

UPDATE: I like the title on the AP version of the story: "Women May Enjoy Humor More, if It's Funny." I can't help jumping ahead to the news: Women may enjoy sex more than men too -- if it's good. Ah, and that's the big problem -- isn't it? -- for both humor and sex: Men are perfectly happy with a lower quality experience, and as a result there is less available that works for women. It's a life of "Three Stooges" comedy and "Three Stooges" sex.


SippicanCottage said...

Here, let me help by using my Secret Sippican Decoder Ring:

mesolimbic reward centre = Jewelry store

No extra charge, you're very welcome.

Jeff with one 'f' said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jeff with one 'f' said...

Oh, spare me. Is there an objective measure of humor? A richter scale of yuks? What does a scientist know from funny?

Did they show any Three Stooges shorts ("Order in the Court", maybe)? Most women don't like their brand of slapstick, so I guess Curly is just a victim and not a comedy genius.

Maybe the men have a more sophisticated sense of humor and were less amused because the construction of the jokes were more obvious and therefore less funny to them. Most comedians, who are male, are known for not being particulary happy and full of laughs. Krusty the Clown is the rule, not the exception. Having a sense of humor and being easily amused are two very different things.

Icepick said...

The need for scientists to be politically correct when discussing male/female differences in humans is nothing compared to minefield of studying race.

The NYT's piece linked to in the above post is really amazing. Several of the first few paragraphs exhibit truly amazing mental and linguistic gymnastics.

amba said...

Yes, it's so condescending. And in that sense it's nothing new -- the same hypocritical attribution of "superiority" was used (and may be used again, even by women themselves) to keep women in the home, doing what we do best -- mothering.

What is new is the thought police who attacked Larry Summers, who won't let you notice a difference at all, or if you do, the female half of it, even if it's "soft" and social, has to be presented as a way of being smarter and stronger.

So there's this weird double-twist hypocrisy at work.

Steve Donohue said...

Wouldn't these same findings 50 years ago have illicited the belief that women just couldn't appreciate the humor involved in the study, what with their lowered logical reasoning skills and their biological sensativities? Now the study finds that women have more discerning tastes, like wine-tasters only affected by the choicest vintages, while men are guttural, laughing buffoons.

And what's with all this biological distinction stuff, anyway? I thought men and women were exactly the same in every way, minus the unmentionables. Heck, even the choice to be a "man" or a "woman" is a social construction, right?

This kind of reminds me of the school of feminish in international relations (and shame on me for not remembering its name) that says that men and women solve problems in different ways, ergo women who rule countries will be less warlike and more likely to talk through problems. Even ignoring the historical idiocy of this statement, if that were true, and there were some innate structure in the female brain that made them more peaceful and sensitive rulers, couldn't it also stand to reason that maybe men's violent and aggresive brains make them more suited for sports? Try arguing that at a Title IX debate!

Finn Alexander Kristiansen said...

Dogtown states:

Ann's post has a parallel in the advertising world. Used to be that women were portrayed in all manner of negative ways, and now the pendulum has swung the other direction, and men are the hopeless sacks of skin...

One sees that all over television, and especially in sitcoms, where the woman is always the sensible one, the brain of the operation.

In King of Queens, Everyone Loves Raymond, Still Standing, and a host of other shows, the woman is always the more competent of the two.

But in fact men and women are different in so many things, and difference should not imply inferiority, and scientists, if anyone, should be free to point this out without being silenced or forced to play word games.

So, for example, you can rightly suggest that women are the biggest wasters of money when it comes to beauty products, orgasming their way through Sephora, but one can find equivalent psychosis within the male brain (whether in the purchase of beer, visits to the strip club, or worship at the alter of sports), and not neglecting the fact there will occasionally be that man who loves Sephora (and for the products), or that gal who just loves the Indianoplis Colts (and not for the hot buns).

The arguments of feminists, as suggested by Steve Donohue above, rather contradict themselves depending on what they want to have, or prove, in a given moment, akin to the quarterback throwing to the safety on the opposing team, and celebrating when a touchdown is scored, a touchdown being a touchdown, fine points be darned.

Steve Donohue said...

I want to make it clear that I was referring to a school of feminism, not the school of feminism. Like I said, I can't remember the name, but I think it was something like "difference feminism" or some such.

I think the ultimate point here is that there are some very subtle, but nonetheless existing, differences between how women and men view comedy. How you present those subtle differences, however, makes all the difference as to whether your study will be derided or applauded. So why chance it?

Icepick said...

Ah, and that's the big problem -- isn't it? -- for both humor and sex: Men are perfectly happy with a lower quality experience, and as a result there is less available that works for women. It's a life of "Three Stooges" comedy and "Three Stooges" sex.

Ooo, you just know Richard is going to hate reading this!

Albatross said...

"Three Stooges" sex. Heh. That certainly pleases MY male brain!

Attila said...

I think your sex analogy is wrong. The study shows that women seeing cartoons didn't expect them to be funny, but their reward center lit up when it turned out their low expectations were exceeded. Life for women shouldn't be Three Stooges sex; it's having low expectations that are, however slightly, exceeded. Am I getting warm?

Ann Althouse said...

Attila: I was mostly referring to orgasms. Men expect to have them, etc.

Bruce Hayden said...

Sex - for us guys, an orgasm or so, and we are happy. For women, many rarely have them, but when they do, some can keep going indefinately. One after another.

I think that I am glad that I am a guy. Gratification is much easier. Pretty much a boolean condition. Yes or no. Sure, I don't have the highs, but don't have all the near misses that many women, esp. younger ones (IMHO) do.

On the other hand, our job is the harder one. Many a woman has been able to satisfy her man with little effort. He does most of the work himself. But if we take our job as a sex partner seriously, we have to work a lot harder to pleasure and satisfy our partner. Some times it isn't easy.

That said, as usual, some of the good and some of the bad for both sides. I think most of us are happy at where we are, and those who aren't can now get sex change operations.

Bruce Hayden said...

I do see a difference between male and female senses of humor. But I think that it is a lot more subtle than portrayed in the article - and, as usual with this sort of thing, it is all a matter of averages and bell curves.

One difference, I think, is that female humor tends to be more self-depricating, the one telling the story is the one taking the fall, whereas with males, someone else is more often the fall guy. Arguably comes from the males are more likely to be hierarchical (putting someone else down increases our stature), and females more relational (putting oneself down increases identification).

So, maybe no surprise that males are more likely to find the Three Studges funny. They say, I can't believe that they are that stupid. I would never be like that. But women may find themselves emphathising with them and feel sorry for them - even knowing that it was intentional.

In any case, the six men in my family always felt that my mother and many of her friends were humor impaired. Then, sometime in her 70s, she developed a sense of humor. She would tell a joke, and we would totally miss it, because we knew, just knew, that she was incapable of it. It was funny really, when she could pull that off on us. And in her last years, was, by a male definition, quite funny. We just had to overcome our long conditioning to appreciate it.

Bruce Hayden said...

Finally, as to advertising on TV. It makes perfect sense to me for advertisers to paint men as clueless, etc. Why? Because it is usually the women making the relevant buying decisions for those products, and this appeals to them. It plays to women's inner conceit (note that we guys have our own conceits and can find them on TV just as easily).

As to shows like Raymond, I would suspect that the target market audience for them is primarily female, so, playing to this same conceit makes sense. It is a relational show, so that makes sense.

Indeed, I will suggest that looking at which sex is glorified and which is not can be a good way of determining target market for both advertising and TV shows. In Mon. night football, the men are out on the field, whereas the women are the beautiful cheerleaders or the wives sitting in the stands. The men have the active roles, and the women just watch them adoringly. (Obviously, this is averages, etc. My daughter watches more football than I do, and a lot more basketball, while I actually like Raymond).

Jasony said...

"Three Stooges Sex". Now there's a mental image I could do without.

Nyuk Nyuk

goodspkr said...

I find that when I explain the humor to women, they then either tend to finally "get it" or say "that's not funny" even if it is very funny.

RebeccaH said...

There is no "either or or" to explain men and women. We all have our tendencies, either cultural or biological, but we are all individuals, and when it comes to human behavior, one size does NOT fit all. That's why we are a unique species.

Anonymous said...

Even more years late, but I'm new to the blog and just read this. I've loved the Stooges my whole life--extreme violence + extreme stupidity = the ultimate recipe for laughs. I'm surprised Steve Martin never came up in the thread about male comedians' looks. As for women, good looks don't make them funnier, but make them easier to watch, and more appealing in that other attractive women can be unduly inclined to take themselves too seriously. Debra Messing and Tina Fey come to mind. And, in my opinion, Gilda Radner was the most talented comedienne ever, but decidedly average-looking.

John said...

Most such studies are a lot like political surveys; look at who is paying to see how the results will come out. In the case of these "university studies" I suspect most of them are paid for by the American taxpayer with grants from agencies "sensitive" to "gender correctness"

Nomennovum said...

Ah, a post that is tasty bait for me.

Actually, it is fairly clear that feminists think that men are superior. The proof is in the pudding (sic).

They want to act like men. They want to believe (and want for us to believe) that any differences between the sexes that are manifested are attributed to social constructs. Don't listen to the words of feminists. Observe their actions. The excuses of “patriarchy” or these studies allegedly proving female superiority are obvious instances of female insecurity and blame-shifting.

In any event, we live in a female dominated culture now. It is also a great social experiment wherein the hypothesis being tested is whether male and female natures are different in a meaningful way. Let us sit back and see how it all works out.

R.C. said...

The reason it must be done this way is because women in our society -- our good professor and a few other rarities presumably excluded -- are raised in such a coddled, catered-to, princess-y way that they generally lack the maturity and emotional grit to handle criticism.

So by all means, don't traumatize the sweet little butterflies. (We'd never hear the end of it.)

Butter 'em up, and maybe that'll shut 'em up and allow the rest of us to get some peace and quiet.

Brian Moore said...

"He who laughs last, thinks slowest."

So it seems that the men in this case were obviously more intelligent, and also more trope-savvy, as they were able to predict where the joke was going before it was told - hence the expectation.

Women seemed to be slow on the uptake. A grinning idiot after the joke was explained, but up until the punchline they had no idea what it would be.

And /that/ is how you take the same data and draw socially motivated conclusions.

curmudgeoninchief said...

Actually, with women, the "mesolimbic reward centre" is the part of the brain where the humor appreciation node is right next to the "let's get naked" nexus, which is why I always try humor on my date. It's surprising how often this works.

curmudgeoninchief said...

Actually, with women, the "mesolimbic reward centre" is the part of the brain where the humor appreciation node is right next to the "let's get naked" nexus, which is why I always try humor on my date. It's surprising how often this works.

Micha Elyi said...

"Wouldn't these same findings 50 years ago have illicited the belief that women just couldn't appreciate the humor involved in the study, what with their lowered logical reasoning skills and their biological sensativities?"--Steve Donohue (11:22 AM)

No. I was alive 50 years ago and I know about such things.

Phil 314 said...