intellectual vanities… about close to everything

Humor Develops From Aggression Caused By Male Hormones, Dermatologist Says

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Humour appears to develop from aggression caused by male hormones, according to a “study” published in the Christmas issue of the British Medical Journal. This respectable periodical has lately lost it’s taste for logic or has developed a taste for Christmas-hoaxes. The humorous rather than scientific report is funny reading and a beautiful demonstration of logical fallacies. 

Man on a unicycle. A professor who rode around on a unicycle noted that about two thirds of men’s ‘comic’ responses to him referred to the number of wheels – “Lost your wheel?”, for example. The professor also noticed the male response differed markedly with age. (Credit: iStockphoto/Mary Gascho)

Professor Sam Shuster observed for one year how people reacted to him as he unicycled through the streets of Newcastle upon Tyne. After some 400 anecdotical observations he concluded that he received stereotypical and predictable responses and that they must be indicative of an underlying biological phenomenon – nice chain of logically faulty conclusions (non sequitur). The results he published are amusing anyway.

Over 90% of people responded physically, for example with an exaggerated stare or a wave. Almost half responded verbally — more men than women. Here, says Professor Shuster, the sex difference was striking. 95% of adult women were praising, encouraging or showed concern. There were very few comic or snide remarks. In contrast, only 25% of adult men responded as did the women, for example, by praise or encouragement; instead 75% attempted comedy, often snide or combative as an intended put-down.

Equally striking, he says, was the repetitive and predictable nature of the comments from men; two thirds of their ‘comic’ responses referred to the number of wheels – “Lost your wheel?”, for example.

Professor Shuster also noticed the male response differed markedly with age, moving from curiosity in childhood (years 5-12) — the same reaction as young girls, – to physical and verbal aggression in boys aged 11-13 who often tried to get him to fall off the unicycle.

Responses became more verbal during the later teens, turning into disparaging ‘jokes’ or mocking songs. This then evolved into adult male humour — characterized by repetitive, humorous verbal put-downs concealing a latent aggression. Young men in cars were particularly aggressive. Professor Shuster notes that this is the age when men are at the peak of their virility. The ‘jokes’ were lost with age as older men responded more neutrally and amicably with few attempts at a jovial put-down.

The female response by contrast, was subdued during puberty and late teens — normally either apparent indifference or minimal approval. It then evolved into the laudatory and concerned adult female response.

The idea that unicycling is intrinsically funny does not explain the findings, says Professor Shuster, particularly the repetitiveness, evolution and sex differences. Genetics may explain the sex difference but not the waxing and waning of the male response. He says the simplest explanation for this change is the effect of male hormones such as testosterone, known collectively as androgens, which induce virility in men. What looks like elegant Ockham’s razor, means in fact begging the question – the easiest explanation for all of Professor Shusters observations is, that they are contingent, and anything beyond belongs into the realm of statistics of small numbers.

His further observations that initial aggressive intent seems to become channeled into a verbal response which pushes it into a contrived, but more subtle and sophisticated joke, so that the aggression would be hidden by wit, can be found, together with more sound considerations in Freud’s „Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewussten“ (1905).

BMJ 2007;335:1320-1322 (22 December), doi:10.1136/bmj.39414.552060.BE
Sex, aggression, and humour: responses to unicycling

Sam Shuster, honorary consultant, emeritus professor of dermatology

1 Department of Dermatology, Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, Norwich NR4 7UY

Sam Shuster compares men and women’s responses to the sight of a unicyclist

After retiring from a busy university department in Newcastle upon Tyne, and with the time and the need for more than the usual consultancies, I was able follow some of my more extreme inclinations. As a cyclist, I had occasionally thought of using more or fewer wheels, but it was only when choosing a grandson’s gift that I got seriously lost in contemplation of a gleaming chrome unicycle. My wife said “buy the bloody” thing, which I did on the whim of the moment. After months of practice at home, I graduated to back streets, a small paved park, and finally town roads. I couldn’t avoid being noticed; in turn, I couldn’t avoid observing the form that notice took. Because at the time there were no other unicyclists in the area, such sightings would have been exceptional, yet I soon found that the responses to them were stereotyped and predictable. I realised that this indicated an underlying biological phenomenon and set about its study.

Written by huehueteotl

December 28, 2007 at 1:22 pm

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