Boys: Would You Make Fun of This Man?

Multi-wheeled unicycle
Wikimedia Commons

Outside of the county fair, I've never seen an actual unicyclist (or is it unicycler?). But if one did cross my path, I'm pretty sure my immediate reaction would be one of amazement and delight.

And that would make sense, according to a new observational study in the British Medical Journal, because I'm a woman. Men, in contrast, would be more likely to make a joke—and not even a particularly good joke.

Sam Shuster, an emeritus professor of dermatology at Newcastle University, has for the last year documented the first responses of 400 people upon seeing him ride his unicycle around Newcastle upon Tyne. For most of them, it was their first time seeing a unicyclist in action.

More than 90 percent of respondents responded physically, by staring or waving their hands. Almost half responded verbally—and that's where it gets interesting. Adult women, he found, overwhelmingly praised him, encouraged him, or showed concern. One said, " is magic"; another said, "You are an Olympic champion." They rarely made a joke. But only 25 percent of adult men said something kind. The rest tried to make degrading jokes. And the jokes weren't very original; Shuster said most of them referred to his lack of wheels, as in, "Couldn't you afford the other wheel?"

However, the men didn't start bullying until puberty. Boys aged 7 to 12 responded with curiosity, saying things like "Was it hard to learn?" Once they hit 13, though, the boys got aggressive, saying things like "fall off granddad," while laughing and throwing small pebbles. (What little monsters!)

Shuster thinks that the simplest explanation of these differences is that male hormones like testosterone induce virility in men. Humor may emerge in teenagers, he continues, as a way of softening aggression.

As with most observational studies, I'm skeptical. But he could test it. Taking his idea to its logical conclusion would mean that 1) women who exhibit this kind of humor have more testosterone kicking around than women who don't; and that 2) men are generally more humorous than women...Maybe granddad is missing a wheel or two after all.

(mikebaird, via Flickr)

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