Sexist humour is more than a chaff. A new study says that exposure to such "harmless" jokes can lead to hostile feelings and discrimination against women.
According to the study's lead author Thomas E Ford of Western Carolina University, "Sexist humour is not simply benign amusement. It acts as a 'releaser' of prejudice.
"Our research demonstrates that exposure to sexist humour can create conditions that allow men -- especially those who have antagonistic attitudes towards women -- to express those attitudes in their behaviour."
The researchers came to the conclusion after analysing two experiments. In the first one, they asked a group of male participants to imagine that they were members of a work group in an organisation.
In that context, they either read sexist jokes, comparable non-humorous sexist statements, or neutral jokes. They were then asked to report how much money they would be willing to donate to help a women's organisation.
"We found that men with a high level of sexism were less likely to donate to the women's organisation after reading sexist jokes, but not after reading either sexist statements or neutral jokes," Ford said.
In the second experiment, the researchers showed a selection of video clips of sexist or non-sexist comedy skits to another group of male participants. In the sexist humour setting, four of the clips contained humour depicting women in stereotypical or demeaning roles, while the fifth was neutral.
The men were then asked to participate in a project designed to determine how funding cuts should be allocated among select student organisations.
Ford said: "We found that, upon exposure to sexist humour, men higher in sexism discriminated against women by allocating larger funding cuts to a women's organisation than they did to other organisations.
"We also found that, in the presence of sexist humour, participants believed the other participants would approve of the funding cuts to women's organisations. We believe this shows that humorous disparagement creates the perception of a shared standard of tolerance of discrimination that may guide behaviour when people believe others feel the same way."
The study has been published in the 'Personality and Social Psychology.