Rationally Speaking

In Pursuit of Positive Skepticism

Conservatives lack sense of humor, study finds

Do conservatives have a measurably lower sense of humor?

I have always thought that conservatives have a much less developed sense of humor than liberals. While it is easy to list a large number of liberal-leaning comedians, for instance, it is hard to come up with more than a handful of conservative ones (and even they, like Dennis Miller, are better characterized as libertarians). This, I think, is because it is difficult to come across as hilarious when you make fun of the poor, minorities and other obvious targets of conservative scorn. Attacking the rich and powerful, on the other hand, is an all time favorite and explains the success of the likes of Jon Stewart.

Then again, in my more sober moments I keep thinking that this can’t be right, and that surely it is simply my bias as a Daily Show regular watcher and leftist coming through loud and clear. Apparently, however, science backs up my admittedly less than neutral political intuition. A recent study published by Heather L. LaMarre, Kristen D. Landreville and Michael A. Beam of Ohio State University in the International Journal of Press/Politics examined how audiences of different political persuasions react to jokes made by Stephen Colbert. The results are quite astounding.

The authors used a respectable sample of 332 individuals, and found that personal political ideology is a good predictor of Colbert’s own political ideology. Here is the kicker: “conservatives were more likely to report that Colbert only pretends to be joking and genuinely meant what he said while liberals were more likely to report that Colbert used satire and was not serious when offering political statements. Conservatism also significantly predicted perceptions that Colbert disliked liberalism.” See? Conservative really do lack a sense of humor!

Moreover, the authors of the study in question also made sure to check whether the two groups thought Colbert is funny (i.e., regardless of how they interpret the comedian’s political leanings). There was no statistical difference in that case, implying that while liberals were laughing at the irony, conservatives were laughing at what they thought was a heartfelt description of the state of the world on Colbert’s part. One would be led to infer a certain degree of meanness on the part of the conservative viewers, which perhaps has something to do with the results of another recent study, showing that people who go to church more often (usually, conservative evangelical Christians) are much more likely to support torture of suspected terrorists. But that’s another, much less funny, story which I’ll leave for another time.

The study by LaMarre and colleagues, I venture to speculate, may also shed some light on a lingering mystery that has occasionally bothered my mind since 2006: what were the people in charge of that year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner thinking when they invited Stephen Colbert to talk, with Bush, Scalia and other big conservative whigs in attendance? If you watch the video, even as a liberal, you’ll cringe at what you see. I mean, Colbert was at his satirical best and very, very, funny, but you almost (and I underscore “almost”) feel sorry for poor W. being subjected to such obvious abuse to his face. But perhaps W. and company really didn’t understand that Stephen was making fun of them, thinking — like the conservative subjects of LaMarre’s research — that he was laughing with them, not at them.

Well, as Steve Martin once said, “Comedy is the art of making people laugh without making them puke.” Now, there is another good idea for a research project...

Massimo Pigliucci is a Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York-Lehman College. more...

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