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Liberals Love to Laugh—Conservatives, Not So Much

New research helps explain why the right has yet to produce a Jon Stewart or John Oliver.
Tragedy Comedy

Political humor has arguably never been more popular. But while its practitioners all have their own distinct styles, their ideology isn't so varied: Whether they come from StephenSeth, or Samantha, the jokes are generally supportive of progressive politics.

Why has the right yet to produce its own Daily Show? In a new study, a research team led by Danna Young of the University of Delaware provides a simple answer: As a rule, conservatives are not into comedy.

"We have ruled out the argument that political satire is liberal because it challenges the status quo," the researchers write in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture. "When looking only at humor's structure, rather than its target, conservatives are still significantly less likely to appreciate humor than liberals."

The study, conducted in 2015, featured 305 Americans, equally divided between liberals and conservatives. In devising it, Young and her colleagues were curious to know whether ideology affected appreciation of two specific types of humor commonly used in political satire.

With the help of a professional comic, she created eight pairs of apolitical jokes that "made the same argument aimed at the same target—one through irony, and the other through exaggeration."

In each round, participants watched a male comedian sitting behind a test read either the ironic joke, or the matched one that derived humor from overstatement. They were then asked to rate how funny, interesting, smart, and enjoyable they found the joke.

They also completed a series of surveys measuring their political ideology, tolerance for ambiguity (which research has found is commonly lower for conservatives), and sense of humor. To gauge the latter, they expressed their level of agreement with statements such as "Other people tell me that I say funny things," and "Humor helps me cope."

Most important, they filled out a six-item survey measuring "need for cognition"—the extent to which one enjoys activities that require thinking. They expressed their level of agreement with such statements as "I prefer complex to simple problems," and "I only think as hard as I have to."

The results were clear. "Conservatives rated both types of joke stimuli as less funny, smart, enjoyable, and interesting than did liberals," Young and her colleagues write.

This difference "is partly explained by the cognitive activity required to decode the humor," they add, "and in part by the fact that conservatives value humor production and reception less than liberals."

There were no significant differences between the types of joke: The researchers found "Conservatism is associated with lower appreciation of both irony and exaggeration." Indeed, among the personality aspects they considered, the only ones that played a role in humor appreciation were one's sense of humor (obviously) and the aforementioned enjoyment of intellectual pursuits.

In short, understanding a joke requires cognitive effort. Liberals seem to enjoy the process, while conservatives, on average, do not. (Note that no one is claiming liberals are smarter—just that they are more likely to enjoy a cognitive challenge.)

Young and her colleagues note that this dynamic only partially explains why conservatives tend to have less of a sense of humor; other factors remain to be discovered. And it's worth remembering that there are plenty of exceptions to this rule. Ronald Reagan had a fine sense of humor—including about himself.

So, conservative comedians, don't give up hope. Surely there are plenty of jokes that don't require a lot of cognitive effort to understand and appreciate. To wit: Take my health care—please!

What—too soon?