Saving Critical Thinking, One Joke at a Time

Humor is no laughing matter when it comes to persuading others.
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Before Adam Conover ever got his own television show, he got a cake. It was decorated with his face: photorealistic frosting that captured his vertically styled bloom of blond hair, horn-rimmed glasses, and light stubble. It also had a URL, and next to the cake was a laptop open to the site Opinionated Things Adam Says.

In their fifth-floor West Hollywood office, Adam's colleagues at CollegeHumor were letting him in on a secret: They'd created a Tumblr account to document "Random opinions overheard from Adam Conover." For example: "I love the fiction of low-fat cream cheese." "I do have a philosophical problem with Coinstar." "Every running-shoe store puts you on one of those treadmills. It's bullshit snake oil they use to sell more shoes."

"Adam always had this lilting charm about him despite the fact that he was that guy"—"the kind of guy if you were eating granola in the kitchen, he would mention how bad granola was for you and why. Prone to anecdote and argument," says Conover's boss at CollegeHumor, Sam Reich.

The Tumblr and the frosting documenting Adam's anecdotes and arguments were received as "an affectionate gesture," Conover says, but also led him to a realization about himself as a person and as a performer. "They latched onto something funny that I do that I wasn't entirely aware of," he says.

Early the next year, when Adam presented his fellow writers with a script for a sketch about "why engagement rings are a scam," he was anxious about their reaction. "I was worried about them making fun of me," he says. But Conover used that in his writing, turning his potential critics into characters who were annoyed by his arguments.

When the video was posted to YouTube on February 14th, 2014, Reich says that the "response was incredible, immediate," and it went viral, picked up outside of the normal CollegeHumor orbit. And thus Adam Ruins Everything was born, though it didn't get that title until the second sketch, and didn't debut on television until the fall of 2015. But the show has always had the same simple yet unimaginably difficult mission: Change the way people think about things that matter to them.

With a combination of comedy and evidence, the program has argued "why you should tell your co-workers your salary," "how Listerine created bad breath," and "why trophy hunting can be good for animals."

In its more than three years on television, it has tried to correct our misunderstandings about circumcision, suburban schools, and death. It dismantles misinformation (the idea that college rankings measure quality), deeply ingrained assumptions (the value of counting calories), and things we never even thought to question (the idea of the American cowboy).

While one show may not singlehandedly slow society's metastasizing ignorance or save critical thinking, it does offer a highly effective model for overcoming the roadblocks between our brains and reality.

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A typical episode of Adam Ruins Everything opens with characters doing something ordinary in an idyllic, brightly lit, real-world location: A dad and his kid hanging out on their suburban lawn, an art student sketching in a studio. A character makes a statement of fact, and then Adam appears—often with the help of special effects, and always without explanation.

"Adam" is an exaggerated version of Conover's real-life persona, and the character could be the cheerful cousin of Debbie Downer, the morose Saturday Night Live character played by Rachel Dratch who interrupts her friends' enthusiasm with awful facts delivered in a cloud of melancholy. By contrast, Adam is a man in a suit with a pocket square. His hair is styled into a blond pompadour. He's joyously upbeat. But he's still here to ruin someone's day.

A version of this story originally appeared in the September/October 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now to support independent journalism in the public interest.

A version of this story originally appeared in the September/October 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now to support journalism in the public interest.

He'll turn cheerfully to the camera to explain why we're all wrong—addressing the audience directly in a way that's familiar and comfortable for Conover, a stand-up comedian. A cast of actors or animated characters illustrates his lectures, perhaps re-creating a historical moment in an exaggerated way. As Adam makes claims, sources appear on screen, from scholarly works to recent journalism, complete with dates and authors. Viewers are periodically directed to the show's site, where there's an archive of sources. Accuracy is so important to Adam Ruins Everything that it devoted an entire Season Two episode to the show's own mistakes and potential flaws.

Conover says he wants viewers "to question received wisdom, and to activate the questioning, learning parts of their brains. Everybody wants to learn more, and likes to learn."

It's "a breakout hit" for its channel, truTV, according to Chris Linn, the channel's president. The Turner-owned cable channel, which reaches 90 million homes, rebranded in 2014 to focus on creator-driven comedy, and Linn says Adam Ruins Everything is "the best example" of its new mission.

TruTV gauges the show's success through various kinds of raw data measurements (television ratings, online video views, social media engagement), but also considers its own internal reactions and conversations (the network's staff "find we're sharing it and we're still stimulated," Linn says). Perhaps most significantly, truTV's research has found that viewer "sentiment is overwhelmingly positive, even for people who don't agree with [Conover]. They appreciate his approach."

Humans ordinarily avoid information they dislike and gravitate toward confirmation of their pre-existing ideas, so for those who explicitly disagree with Adam's arguments to enjoy and return to the show indicates that his approach is working.

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If Adam Ruins Everything is changing people's minds, its success can be attributed to the well-documented power of humor to persuade. However, while funny things can be reassuring and uplifting, making us feel better, humor isn't automatically guaranteed to change a viewer's mind. In fact, humor can do the opposite, reinforcing what we already think.

When someone is trying to persuade people using comedy, the comedian's "intent doesn't matter," according to Danna G. Young, a media effects scholar and associate professor of communication at the University of Delaware whose work focuses on political humor. Consider Comedy Central's The Colbert Report, which may have seemed like obvious, brutal satire of a conservative pundit. But that actually depends upon who you are. Researchers at Ohio State University found that a viewer's preexisting ideology affected how they saw the character. Like liberal viewers, conservative viewers enjoyed the show, but they didn't see Stephen Colbert's character as mocking.

Mocking through exaggeration, as Colbert and his writers may have intended, doesn't guarantee that the audience will receive a show that way. That explains why researchers found that Archie Bunker, the bigoted lead character in Norman Lear's All in the Family, "may reinforce rather than reduce racial and ethnic prejudice."

Unlike those shows, Adam Ruins Everything doesn't use irony or sarcasm. Instead, it deploys exaggeration and hyperbole. That's very effective, Young says, because "you're saying exactly what you mean, and you're saying it in such a heightened and ridiculous way that there's no mistaking what your argument is. My belief is that that is so much easier to comprehend. It's called scalar humor—because it's just exaggerating the scale of whatever it is you're saying. That's readily understandable."

When more complex jokes creep into writers' scripts, Conover says, "I always change that to the straightforward version of the line. Let's take the irony out and just make it the straight version. I don't want people to be confused."

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The show's simple jokes are also embedded in narratives. Various studies have recognized the power of storytelling to affect beliefs. Research published in Human Communication Research has shown that "identification with characters in the narrative reduced counterarguing." Communication and media effects scholars Emily Moyer-Gusé and Robin L. Nabi came to that conclusion after showing hundreds of undergraduate students one of two shows about teenage pregnancy. The one with a "dramatic narrative" distracted students from the fact that they were being persuaded, because they were pulled into the story. "People tend to resist persuasive attempts, so identification with characters—whether in narratives on television, books, even advertisements—can bring down some of that wall of resistance," Nabi says. "This is arguably the case in both fictional programming as well as real people."

TruTV has recognized the importance of viewers identifying with Adam. "The show only works if we can establish this bond between [Conover] and the audience where they can trust him and truly believe him," Linn says.

But viewers may identify more with Adam's marks, the people he interacts with on screen. Those characters—the ones based on Adam's CollegeHumor co-workers—express irritation about being corrected by this strange man, and frequently mock Adam. They become stand-ins for the audience and its skepticism and bewilderment.

What's happening here, Young says, is "strategic empathy, or at least acknowledging the emotional attachment that people have to these beliefs," ensures that the arguments can "continue to be non-threatening." In most episodes, Adam overtly reassures his marks (and thus the audience)—perhaps that they're not ignorant, nor racist, nor intentionally doing harm.

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While viewership suggests that Adam Ruins Everything is resonating with viewers, Young says it remains extremely difficult to measure if television programs are actually changing minds. "[Researchers] have been banging their heads against the wall since the 1930s trying to find persuasion effects," she says.

However, Young also says that researchers have proven something else: priming effects. Media can bring information to our attention. "If something is on your mind, you're more likely to seek out information about it. You're more likely to recognize other information related to it. And if something's on the top of your mind, you're more likely to use that when you make subsequent judgments," she says.

Though he comes from a family of academics and researchers—his parents and sister all have Ph.D.'s—Conover didn't explicitly design his show around research. He developed it organically, by paying attention to what worked for him: storytelling, repetition of key ideas, and focused humor. He imagined himself as an audience for his own arguments. He thought critically about why he was convinced of a fact or evidence or argument. He listened to and used his CollegeHumor colleagues' playful feedback.

And it's that sense of humanity that makes the show work. There is so much resistance to having our ideological and filter bubbles popped that we protect them and fight off any perceived threats. But instead of coming at our bubbles with sharp swords of facts and judgment, Adam Conover sidles up in his own bubble, tells us a story, mocks himself, and lays out some facts. He's humble, informed, and human. With that combination, he's demonstrating a formula we might all use to attract, not repel, each other.

A version of this story originally appeared in the September/October 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now to support independent journalism in the public interest.

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