WASHINGTON -- The difference between the sexes has long been a rich source of humor. Now it turns out, humor is one of the differences.
Women seem more likely than men to enjoy a good joke, mainly because they don't always expect it to be funny.
"The long trip to Mars or Venus is hardly necessary to see that men and women often perceive the world differently," a research team led by Dr. Allan L. Reiss of the Stanford University School of Medicine reports in Tuesday's issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
But they were surprised when their studies of how the male and female brains react to humor showed that women were more analytical in their response, and felt more pleasure when they decided something really was funny.
"Women appeared to have less expectation of a reward, which in this case was the punch line of the cartoon," said Reiss. "So when they got to the joke's punch line, they were more pleased about it."
Women were subjecting humor to more analysis with the aim of determining if it was indeed funny, Reiss said in a telephone interview.
Men are using the same network in the brain, but less so, he said, men are less discriminating.
"It doesn't take a lot of analytical machinery to think someone getting poked in the eye is funny," he commented when asked about humor like the Three Stooges.
While there is a lot of overlap between how men and women process humor, the differences can help account for the fact that men gravitate more to one-liners and slapstick while women tend to use humor more in narrative form and stories, Reiss said.
The funnier the cartoon the more the reward center in the women's brain responded, unlike men who seemed to expect the cartoons to be funny from the beginning, the researchers said.
The new insight could improve understanding of such conditions as depression, the researchers said.
"The bottom line is that I think it contributes to the foundation of understanding individual differences in humans," Reiss said. Humor is used by humans to cope with stress and to establish relationships, and it can even help strengthen the immune system.