Underlying psychological traits could explain why political satire tends to be liberal

The need for cognition — a psychological term used to describe the enjoyment of thinking and analyzing problems — could help explain the differences in humor appreciation between liberals and conservatives.

According to new research in Psychology of Popular Media Culture, political conservatives tend to score lower on a measure of need for cognition, which is related to their lack of appreciation for irony and exaggeration.

“Having studied the content, effects, and psychological processing of political humor and satire for 20 years, I could never escape the question of why political satire tends to be liberal,” said study author Dannagal G. Young, an associate professor at the University of Delaware and author of the forthcoming book Irony and Outrage: The Polarized Landscape of Rage, Fear, and Laughter in the United States.

“Everywhere I went, I was asked this question, and I had never been satisfied with my response. Digging into the literature on the psychological profiles of liberals and conservatives opened a window into a new explanatory mechanism – that the ‘liberal bias’ of satire does not stem from the content, target, or function of those jokes, but rather from the rhetorical structure of humor itself – especially in the case of irony.”

In the study, 305 participants watched and evaluated a series of jokes about a variety of apolitical topics. For each topic, the researchers crafted two types of joke: one version used irony to humorous effect, while the other used exaggeration.

For example, some participants viewed this irony-based joke:

The other participants viewed this exaggeration-based joke:

After evaluating the jokes, the participants then completed measures of need for cognition, tolerance for ambiguity, need to evaluate, sense of humor, and political ideology.

Young and her colleagues found that more conservative participants tended to show less appreciation of both forms of jokes.

This relationship was partially explained by need for cognition and sense of humor. In other words, conservatives tended to agree with statements such as “I only think as hard as I have to” and “People who tell jokes are a pain in the neck,” which in turn was associated with less positive evaluations of the jokes.

“The study provides empirical evidence that conservatives and liberals differ in their appreciation and comprehension of humor, especially in the case of irony. Even when the subject matter is not political at all, conservatives are less appreciative of incongruity-based humorous texts than liberals are,” Young told PsyPost.

“This difference is due in part to the fact that liberals and conservatives have different underlying psychological and personality traits that shape how they interact with messages in the environment. Liberals tend to be higher in need for cognition.”

“They are also more likely to value the production and consumption of humor in general. In this study, both of these traits accounted — in part — for liberals’ higher appreciation of both irony and exaggeration, compared to conservatives.”

The study — like all research — includes some limitations. Though need for cognition explains some of the relationship, “much of the impact of conservatism on humor appreciation remains unaccounted for,” the researchers said.

It is also possible that the format of the jokes reminded participants of The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, or Saturday Night Live‘s Weekend Update.

“It is very possible that the format and visual cue of the comic behind a desk signaled to conservative viewers that this content was similar in spirit and intent to that of late-night comedy (hence, it may have been perceived as left-leaning even though the jokes were not political),” Young said.

“This might explain conservatives’ lower appreciation of the content. Future research could explore various novel formats to avoid that confound.”

The study, “Psychology, Political Ideology, and Humor Appreciation: Why Is Satire So Liberal?” was authored by Dannagal G. Young, Benjamin E. Bagozzi, Abigail Goldring, Shannon Poulsen, and Erin Drouin.