A research project led by a Western Carolina University psychology professor indicates that jokes about blondes and women drivers are not just harmless fun and games; instead, exposure to sexist humor can lead to toleration of hostile feelings and discrimination against women.
“Sexist humor is not simply benign amusement. It can affect men’s perceptions of their immediate social surroundings and allow them to feel comfortable with behavioral expressions of sexism without the fear of disapproval of their peers,” said Thomas E. Ford, a new faculty member in the psychology department at WCU. “Specifically, we propose that sexist humor acts as a ‘releaser’ of prejudice.”
In their research article*, Ford and the graduate student co-authors describe two research projects designed to test the theory that “disparagement humor” has negative social consequences and plays an important role in shaping social interaction.
“Our research demonstrates that exposure to sexist humor can create conditions that allow men – especially those who have antagonistic attitudes toward women – to express those attitudes in their behavior,” he said. “The acceptance of sexist humor leads men to believe that sexist behavior falls within the bounds of social acceptability.”
In one experiment, Ford and his student colleagues asked male participants to imagine that they were members of a work group in an organization. In that context, they either read sexist jokes, comparable non-humorous sexist statements, or neutral (non-sexist) jokes. They were then asked to report how much money they would be willing to donate to help a women’s organization. “We found that men with a high level of sexism were less likely to donate to the women’s organization after reading sexist jokes, but not after reading either sexist statements or neutral jokes,” Ford said.
In the second experiment, researchers showed a selection of video clips of sexist or non-sexist comedy skits to a group of male participants. In the sexist humor setting, four of the clips contained humor depicting women in stereotypical or demeaning roles, while the fifth clip was neutral. The men were then asked to participate in a project designed to determine how funding cuts should be allocated among select student organizations.
“We found that, upon exposure to sexist humor, men higher in sexism discriminated against women by allocating larger funding cuts to a women’s organization than they did to other organizations,” Ford said. “We also found that, in the presence of sexist humor, participants believed the other participants would approve of the funding cuts to women’s organizations. We believe this shows that humorous disparagement creates the perception of a shared standard of tolerance of discrimination that may guide behavior when people believe others feel the same way.”
The research indicates that people should be aware of the prevalence of disparaging humor in popular culture, and that the guise of benign amusement or “it’s just a joke” gives it the potential to be a powerful and widespread force that can legitimize prejudice in our society, he said.
*Ford, who conducted research into sexist humor with three graduate students at his previous institution of Western Michigan University, presents their findings in an article accepted for publication in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. The article, “More Than Just a Joke: The Prejudice-Releasing Function of Sexist Humor,” is scheduled for publication in February 2008.
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