Across three humor production tasks, including one that involved coming up with funny cartoon captions, people who scored high in right-wing authoritarianism created responses that were rated as much less funny compared to their counterparts. The research was published in Personality and Individual Differences.
Right-wing authoritarianism (RWA) is a psychological construct defined by a willingness to comply with authorities and to follow traditional social rules, accompanied by aggression towards those who do not. People who are high in RWA tend to enjoy humor, as demonstrated by their appreciation for jokes that degrade vulnerable groups. However, as study authors Paul J. Silvia and his team say, it is not clear how right-wing authoritarians perform when it comes to creative humor.
Silvia and his colleagues explain that coming up with an original funny idea is a distinct process from parroting another person’s joke. Interestingly, there is some evidence to suggest that right-wing authoritarians are not so good at this type of humor production. Given that the previous studies on RWA and humor are outdated and yield inconsistent findings, Silvia and colleagues were motivated to conduct a study of their own.
The researchers had 186 university students participate in three creative tasks and informed them that the objective of the tasks was to be funny. A cartoons task showed participants three cartoon images and asked them to create a caption for each one. A definitions task presented subjects with three made-up word combinations (e.g., cereal bus) and asked them to come up with a humorous definition for each one. Lastly, a final task set the students up with three comical scenarios and asked them to complete the punchlines. The participants then completed measures of RWA, Openness to Experience, and Conscientiousness.
Silvia and his team then had 8 independent raters judge the “funniness” of the subjects’ responses. They then used an approach called the Many-Facet Rasch Model to take into account the toughness of the raters and the difficulty of the tasks when considering each subjects’ humor ability.
When analyzing the results, the researchers found a strong link between RWA and humor ability. Intriguingly, students who were high in RWA came up with responses that were rated as far less funny than their counterparts’ responses.
To assess whether this apparent lack of humor ability was the result of an overlap with personality, the researchers re-analyzed the data while controlling for the effects of the traits of Openness to Experience and Conscientiousness. These two personality traits were chosen since they have been previously linked to RWA as well as creativity and humor.
In line with past research, the two traits were indeed correlated with RWA — students high in RWA scored lower in Openness to Experience and higher in Conscientiousness. But while controlling for these two traits somewhat weakened the link between RWA and humor ability, the association remained significant. “Taken together,” Silvia and colleagues say, “the findings suggest that people high in RWA just aren’t very funny.”
While right-wing authoritarians might enjoy humor, coming up with their own jokes may not be their strong point. The researchers propose that future research should explore what it is exactly about the construct of RWA that appears to blunt creative humor. Given that the associated constructs of conservatism and dogmatism are tied to tendencies like cognitive rigidity and seriousness, the authors point out that these traits may play a role.
The study, “Right-wing authoritarians aren’t very funny: RWA, personality, and creative humor production”, was authored by Paul J. Silvia, Alexander P. Christensen, and Katherine N. Cotter.