Friday, December 21, 2007

Sex, aggression, and humour: responses to unicycling

Juggling unicyclist and UTSA graduate Ian Bexar Maurer-Stothert

'Tis the season for the British Medical Journal's satire issue to lighten the holiday mood. Last year's gems included 2007 Ig Nobel Prize winner, Sword Swallowing and Its Side Effects (Witcombe & Meyer, 2006) and Phenotypic differences between male physicians, surgeons and film stars: comparative study by Trilla and colleagues (aka, Are Surgeons Taller And Better Looking Than Other Doctors?).

This year, Sam Shuster compared 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.

This is not Dr. Shuster, but rather a participant in the July 29, 2005 Critical Mass ride in Vancouver. One might imagine that he received a particularly hostile reception from stranded heterosexual male motorists 15-35 years of age.

After compiling the comments of over 400 people, Dr. Shuster reported the following:
Almost 50% of those encountered, more often men than women, responded verbally. The sex difference in the type of response was striking. Around 95% of responses from women praised, encouraged, or showed concern, and women made few comic or snide remarks. In contrast, only 25% of the comments made by men indicated praise, appreciation, or neutrality, whereas 75% were attempts at comedy, often snide and proffered combatively as a put-down.
Some of the choice comments included:
Inquisitive 5-12 year olds:
"Why do you use only one wheel?"

Aggressive boys:
"Do you want to knock him over?" "Yes I bet I could do it"

"Wonderful . . . I am impressed"
"Clever, clever"
"You are an Olympic champion"

"Couldn’t you afford the other wheel?"
"Where’s the other bits then?"
"You must like living dangerously"

Elderly men
Two men walking together asked seriously, not as a joke, "Are you practising for a circus then?" and "Does it crush your bollocks mate?"
And what about sex and aggression? Was there any relationship with testosterone levels?

From about 11-13 years, boys began to develop an aggressive response, which continued throughout the school years. They tried to put me off balance by suddenly shouting, jumping out of hiding, kicking a football, throwing stones, or riding a bicycle at me; a few asked for a ride in addition to aggressive behaviour.

A further change in male behaviour was seen during the late teens—aggression decreased, but they tried to make disparaging "jokes," which were sometimes incorporated into mocking songs. This change continued, and finally evolved into adult male humour with its concealed aggression.

The female response was subdued during puberty and late teens, with apparent indifference or minimal approval, such as a tentative smile. It then evolved to the laudatory and concerned adult female response.
Estimated changes in serum testosterone concentrations in males with age
Particularly interesting for the evolution of humour was the way the initial aggressive intent channelled the verbal response into a contrived but more subtle and sophisticated joke, in which aggression is concealed by wit. This shows how the aggression that leads to humour eventually becomes separated from it as wit, jokes, and other comic forms, which then take on an independent life of their own.

These observations lead to the conclusion that humour evolves from androgen primed aggression.
So now you know. And how might you respond to the unexpected sight of a unicyclist?


Shuster S. (2007). Sex, aggression, and humour: responses to unicycling. BMJ 335:1320-1322.

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At December 21, 2007 7:15 PM, Blogger Sandra said...

Then there's extreme mountain unicycling, by some of my coolest neighbours. Awesome video.

At January 05, 2010 7:42 PM, Blogger Ian James Anthony said...

As a unicyclist of two years, I can say your findings are pretty spot on. I'd like to perform my own tests this summer, which will deviate from yours in two ways. I'm a student at The University of Illinois, which, I think, would considerably alter the findings. We have a lot of fraternities on campus, which I've noticed raises the bar on the responses I get from groups of guys.

Also, I ride a five-foot tall unicycle, which really elicits some stron reactions. I'll have to let you know what the results are.


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