Monday, 26 March 2012

What would you say to the unicycling professor?

In 2007, a retired dermatologist published an article in the BMJ in which he described his year-long observations of the way people responded to the sight of him travelling about on his unicycle. From over 400 encounters with men, women and children, Prof. Sam Shuster observed some striking differences: young children expressed curiosity, older boys were aggressive, including throwing stones and attempting to knock him off, women tended to express admiration and concern, whilst men indulged in repetitive, snide humour, usually referring to the absence of a wheel, as in "Lost your wheel?".

Shuster said that the sex and age differences were striking: 95 per cent of female comments were praising vs. 25 per cent of comments made by men. The majority - 75 per cent - of adult male comments were attempts at comedy (a tendency that was diminished in elderly men). "The consistent content of the male 'joke' and its triumphant delivery as if it was original and funny, even when it was neither, was remarkable, and it suggests a common underlying mechanism," he wrote. Shuster thinks this mechanism is humour as a form of verbal aggression, driven by male hormones.

Now Shuster has published the results of his online investigations into this phenomenon, based on analysis of comments on unicycling forums by 23 male unicyclists and 9 female unicyclists (aged 15-69) with experience of cycling around the world, including in the UK, USA, mainland Europe, Scandinavia, Canada, South Korea and New Zealand. All but two of the unicyclists' experiences were indicative of the exact same pattern noted by Shuster - admiration and concern in women; physical aggression in older boys, which matured into repetitive, aggressively humourous remarks from adult men. Email correspondence with five further unicyclists given access to the 2007 BMJ paper led to further supporting evidence.

"Although this method of data collection does not eliminate risks of self-selection and bias," Shuster admitted, "the equal opportunity available to unicyclists to record conflicting observations makes it likely that these findings are representative; the consistency of the data gathered from the different sources gives further confidence."

Shuster concluded that the experimental possibilities arising from his findings were considerable - for example, testing whether humour production and appreciation changes with stage and state of sexual development; investigating the persistence of aggression as a component of humour; and whether humour production, exhibition and appreciation changes as a function of men and women's sexual and social success (Shuster's own data hinted at less humourous aggression in men of more affluent means, but exaggerated comedic aggression in men driving old cars).
Shuster, S. (2012). The evolution of humor from male aggression. Psychology Research and Behavior Management DOI: 10.2147/PRBM.S29126 [Thanks to George Smith for the tip-off]

PS. This isn't the first psychology study to feature a unicycle. Previously on the Digest we reported: Talking on a mobile phone, you're less likely to notice the unicycling clown.

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.


woodlouse56 said...

A very believable account of modern male humour designed to belittle rather than communicate irony or humour at our shared human situation. Franky Boyle although funny sometimes must be a seething mass of insecurities....I suppose that last sentence too is an example of modern humour.

zbicyclist said...

Never ridden a unicycle, but have a recumbent bike and a tandem, which occasionally gets ridden solo — always a source of amusement. Men bond with humor, women with sympathy. Nothing new there. Academics are often humor-challenged. Nothing new there.

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