Sex, aggression, and humour: responses to unicycling

The British Medical Journal is a weekly professional journal for doctors. (A pretty prestigious one, actually.) At Christmas it often has lighter articles, and this year it has one about “where’s the other wheel” comments! I enjoyed reading it, and I hope you do too. :slight_smile:

Seems pretty consistant with my own observations.

That’s a great study ! Pretty consistent with with what we see everyday. I liked it very much !

However, the testosterone explaination might be a bit too much :roll_eyes: !

Why? It makes perfect sense and seems entirely consistent both with the observations of the researcher and my own observations over 13 years of unicycling.

Well, I don’t really know, but I find it a too simple explaination for a complex phenomenon. In other terms : why testosterone and not any other of men attributes ?

Or else : Why do you have to assume that a sweet joke is a masked form of aggressivity ?

Excellent study! I don’t think that all of the jokes made by males that are seemingly put-downs are indeed a form of disguised aggression. I have responded to jokes made by guys by asking them if they would want to try riding my unicycle. Some decline the offer out of arrogance, and make further mocking remarks. Some decline out of the lack of confidence, and others accept the offer enthusiastically. I would say that some jokes are disguised comments of interest, and not disguised aggression because these males have the desire to unicycle, but whether out of pride, expectations of me saying no or making a discouraging comment in response to their request, won’t flat out simply ask if they can try. So in some cases the desire to unicycle is not expressed by a direct request, but instead masked in the safety of a joke, which by definition of the word is deceptive.

I thought there might be a thread about this here. :roll_eyes:

Yeah, but like all evolutionary psychology there’s no actual connection between the evidence and the ‘conclusion.’

I agree that more men make comments, and that they’re more aggressive. But when you’re actually chatting with people they’re about equally likely to crack jokes, ask for a go, whatever else. And a major factor that he doesn’t talk about is about whether the person is in a group or not and the sex of the person unicycling. Men in mixed groups make up about two thirds of the ‘where’s the other wheels.’ So if social context makes so much difference, then maybe the huge number of social pressures to behave one way or another might be making a difference. Seems more likely than hormone = personality trait. And anyway women are more likely to talk to me or make a joke when they realise I’m female, so there’s a factor that affects the actual results, not just the tenuous conclusion. The main thing that really struck me about the situation was that a woman saying anything to a strange man is often interpreted as a come on, so they might be less likely to heckle unicyclists.

I dunno. I get so sick of this kind of ‘psychology’, it’s basically all fiction but the newspapers love it because it confirms all kinds of stereotypes.

Very interesting study and goes pretty much like that here in Finland too. Funniest thing is that there was an article about this study published in one of the biggest newspaper here too. :slight_smile:

Here´s link to the article (“might” be little hard to understand)

As a great fan of Ben Goldacre in the Grauniad I tend to agree. But then Rupert did say it was a “lighter” article for the Xmas edition, so I guess the writer wasn’t putting it forward for peer review.

True, the BMJ normally don’t publish that kind of thing (although most people are taken in by the evo-psych format so it’s hardly a joke either). And anyway of course the bigger issue is that nowhere in the whole paper did he point out that “Where’s your other wheel?” isn’t actually funny, and that unicycling is a serious sport. :wink:

Just mentioning this to my wife, and she says there was a report on TV about it this week too. I guess someone picked it up as a humourous story for the news. Anyone see it?

That guy sure does like to listen to himself talk…or type as the case may be.

I just had two things to add, other than, of course, insulting the author.

Firstly, though people in America are failry unanimous that our youth are taking a turn for the worse, from this and many other various comments, it seems to me that children in England are far worse than here. I think this is possibly due to the fact that here in America, a rude kid is possibly more likely to be bodily injured by his/her “victim”. So…really, more crime makes nicer children…until they decide to shoot you. :slight_smile:

And secondly, I find this very strange. I thought that all of those silly “where’s your other wheel” jokes wouldn’t happen to me. Then, of course, they did. Quite a bit…at first. However, the odd part is that in over a year, I don’t recall a single one. I’m not in a small town, I ride all over, and so most of the people that I encounter are new people that most likely have never seen me before. Yet, I haven’t had one single joking remark in quite a long time. So, we know that most people won’t say the same thing twice, as that would just be silly. And we know that people as a whole aren’t getting nicer. And I’m fairly sure that I’m not running into the same people every day. So, we can only assume that there is some sort of “group mind” thing happening. Like the Borg or some types of animals. These people are somehow imbibed with the knowledge of myself riding a unicycle though having never physically seen me before. And they are then therefore more prepared, possibly, and past the silly joking phase…Strang huh…

So…now who was that I said that liked to hear himself talk, I forget?


Matches my own experiences, but I never noticed the gender thing. The little kids I’ve seen usually expressed genuine interest. Bad jokes usually came from guys in their late teens or early twenties (now that I think about it most responses are by guys). Older people are more likely to come up w/ something somewhat original or actually kind of funny.

People who made a snide comment and I was able to come up w/ a quick non-insulting comback were much nicer and in awe than those who I said nothing to, when I saw them again.

People probably who’ve seen you probably told their friends, family, and coworkers. Some of them told people they knew, and eventually word got out that there are unicyclists around and to see one wouldn’t be horribly suprising and then comment, esp if you were doing some impressive looking skills at the time those people saw you, or if you had an unpleasant response to their “Where’s the other wheel?” coments.

The major communication systems within the body are the nervous system and the endocrine system (hormones). Nervous messages are faster and more specific, while the chemical messages of the endocrine system are broader and longer lasting.

The androgens can have an enormous impact on mood, aggression and behaviour. If you doubt that, ask any woman who suffers from PMT (or any man who has ever lived with such a woman). Testosterone, progesterone and oestrogen, in particular, play major roles in controlling the sex drive and sexual behaviour. As, from an evolutionary perspective, it can quite easily be argued that reproduction is the primary function of most organisms, it makes sense that the chemical signals for reproductive behaviour should have a powerful affect.

So while the study in question may not prove any connection between the evidence and the suggested interpretation thereof, I am strongly inclined as a biochemist and a student of evolution to regard the explanation as sensible and a reasonable starting point for further study.

Danny - certainly hormones affect people’s mood very strongly, and that influences behaviour, but evolutionary psychology and biological determinism make much stronger claims than that, and of a kind that can’t actually be used to develop or explore genuine scientific theories. This is the same field of science that says that women like pink because they used to hunt for berries. :thinking:

Evolutionary explanations for linguistic phenomena (like joking) just don’t work. Evolution and other lower level things like psychiatry go together quite interestingly, and certainly both hormones and physiology are relevant in explaining many facets of behaviour, but once you get above the modular or systemic level into language based cognition you can’t actually form a scientific theory. (Possibly one reason for this is that it looks like we had brains for quite a while before we were using them to talk.) The theory the writer is giving is incapable of disproof - you could just as easily invent the opposite theory and there’d be no way to judge between them. In fact, I’m sure I’ve read someone opining that women invented humour because it’s a group mechanism for defusing tense situations, and so women needed to crack jokes to stop the violent men from attacking the babies. Or something.

And on the positive evidence side: There are many studies showing huge cultural variation in how much women talk in social situations relative to men, and so there is overwhelming evidence that the bulk of explanation in explaining differences in language use is to be found in social factors, and if there is something left in biological differences it will only be discernible once such social factors are non-existent (which certainly isn’t happening any time soon) and even then they will not be something that we can relate in a reliable way to evolutionary pressures on the savannah.

And then, as I said, women are more likely to make jokes about unicycling to me when they notice I’m a woman (there’s a pretty direct correlation to hair length I think), and I can think of several good social explanations for that. Even if I couldn’t think of a single one, socially constructed gender differences are so immensely complicated and pervasive, and their effects so well documented, that I would be very hesitant to write a paper about any sex-based difference that didn’t even mention them in order to discount them.

And then, it remains the case that his whole thesis rests on the idea that “Where’s the other wheel?” is a joke.

stupid comments from people annoy me.

“Where’s the handlebars? hehe…”
“Wraped around the last itiots throat”

I agree with Beth. In my experience, males and females hardly differ in their need to make some kind of humorous observation - usually negative. Mind you, it has to be said that on the few occasions when things have been thrown at me, it has been by teenage boys. Women are in general just as violent as men, but perhaps their energy is directed elsewhere when they see a unicyclist.

I think it says something about human psychology that people feel this urge to comment - are strange situations threatening in some way? Do they feel the need to take control by belittling the unusual? Why are unicyclists so hard to ignore? I don’t know, but it seems curious that most comments are mocking
rather than funny.

But there are age related differences. My favourite age group is young children, who are generally interested rather than mocking. Older people rarely believe you if you suggest that they could easily learn. Parents seem to use me as a way to engage with bored toddlers, along the lines of “Oooh! Look at that man’s bike”. Some teenagers manage to maintain a high level of interest and will even have a go if offered. Failure is not embarrassing in this context because everyone in the group has tacitly agreed that the task is impossible anyway: it’s just for a laugh.

I read a ‘theory’ that language evolved through sexual selection: men with the gift of the gab earned themselves breeding opportunities. Women were just the adoring listeners in all this. Good news for all you misogynists out there in the Babble Belt. :wink:


ISTM that you’re reading far too much into the study. I don’t see any theory given in the BMJ piece, nor enough evidence to formulate a theory. I see speculation with potential for formulation of a hypothesis.

A null hypothesis might be something along the lines of: “Testosterone levels have no effect on the style of humour used by males when confronted with an unfamiliar male performing a comical and unusual activity”.

Testing of the hypothesis would require measurements and, ideally, manipulation of hormone levels in a large number of subjects. Even without the problems of quantifying humour the tests would be impractical and unethical, but it is nonetheless possible to formulate a null hypothesis for falsification purposes.

Do you think the fact that your observations, as a young woman, differ from those of the elderly male writer, weaken his observations in any way? Or the fact that my own observations as a male rider (although much younger than the writer) strengthen those observations? No progress will ever be made towards understanding the humour directed towards unicyclists without making, comparing and speculating upon those observations.

I find it interesting that Alan’s experiences differ from mine. He’s a similar age to me, I could speculate that differences might be caused by his quite different build, or more likely by wheel size (the effects of wheel size on comments from passers by has been discussed here in the past). I used to ride a lot in town on a 20" wheel. I know that the comments generally become more considered and interesting when I’m on a 26", and more so again on the 36". I believe Alan does most of his riding on a 36".

I expect most of us laughed the first time we heard it. Perhaps even the second time. The fact that it is no longer funny the hundredth time doesn’t alter the fact that it /is/ a joke.