Political Humor and Anxiety: Processing Humor (Update #2)

Hey guys! I’ve been delving into some of the more psychological aspects of political humor in the past couple weeks and found that the field is typically split into two theories.

How we process humor: Two theories

There are two main theories for why political humor could be processed differently and less critically than political news. Most researchers who delve into how we process political humor build off of the Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM) of persuasion, since these researchers are interested in how political humor can change opinions and ultimately have some effect on voting behavior. ELM suggests the following:

  • Persuasion is processed both centrally and peripherally. Central route processing is conscious thought based on facts and content (more of what we associate with “thinking”) while peripheral processing uses context, style, and mood to form opinions. When humor is enjoyed, a person’s anxiety is likely to decrease and thus their mood is altered. This positive mood allows the humor to essentially bypass critical thinking through peripheral route processing. If political humor is processed peripherally, a person is less likely to counterargue the underlying political argument through central route processing and thus subtly have their opinion influenced by this humor. However, it should be noted that opinions formed through peripheral route processing are less strongly-held and don’t impact decisions as much as centrally processed opinions.

This possible pathway could also be explained by the heuristic-systematic model of persuasion, as follows:

  • Persuasion can be processed either systematically or heuristically. Systematic processing considers the validity of the fact in a conscious and deliberate way (much like central route processing) while heuristic processing takes shortcuts and quickly forms an opinion. For example, a person who is systematically processing a news article may pay attention to whether or not this news has been reported elsewhere or if it is consistent with past events. Meanwhile, a person processing the same article heuristically may assume the article and its arguments are correct because it is from their favorite news site, which is a “rule of thumb” that allows the brain to evaluate the validity of the article without critical thought. Political humor may satisfy a heuristic like “this content is good because it’s funny”, which leads to the political content of the humor also being interpreted as “good” rather than being systematically processed as a political opinion.

How does humor affect anxiety?

Humor is typically known to decrease anxiety. Since humor processing is dependent on the mood of the viewer (as supposed by the ELM), anxiety can affect whether or not humor is able to bypass critical thinking and how it is processed peripherally. If anxiety is present, the humor stimulus may not result in a strong emotion and circumvent peripheral processing. In this case, political humor would be processed centrally and the stimulus would be evaluated differently. In short, if the viewer sees political humor that causes them stress for any reason, they are more likely to think critically about the content of the humor stimulus. I think that the political humor switch from peripheral to critical thinking is best seen in studies of political comedy “soft news” programs (i.e. The Daily Show). Previous studies have shown that viewers of these programs pay more attention to news media and seek out news from other traditional sources, which might occur because viewers switch from peripheral processing to central processing and seriously consider the political issues discussed on the program.

Why might humor be stressful?

Part of the working definition of political humor is that it “deals with issues of moral or ethical weight”, which could be the source of stress. If a person doesn’t like anything related to politics or disagrees with the stance that the humor takes politically, this could dampen or counter the effect of the humor. The subject of the humor may also be morally or ethically challenging, which would cause the viewer to critically analyze the humor which could potentially produce a stressful conclusion.

A brief divergence into theory:

This onset of stress/anxiety from political humor could be explained by a theory proposed by Geoffrey Baym. Building off of Weber’s theory of social rationalization and the division of life into different spheres (science, morality, and art), Baym notes that these boundaries are increasingly blurred and certain types of communication blend elements from multiple spheres. Political humor tends to bridge the gap between the art sphere (comedy/entertainment) and the morality sphere (political issues, news). However, the Weber theory also holds that these spheres are seen as mutually exclusive. While purely art-expressive comedy might be processed peripherally, the injection of moral-political content to create the comedy can go one of two ways: successfully adopting the political content along the peripheral processing pathway for entertainment and humor (no stress caused by political content crossing the sphere boundary) or rejecting/challenging the moral-political content and interpreting it along the critical pathway (stress caused by political content crossing a sphere boundary). It could also be that the mere presence of something from the moral-political sphere, whether the viewer agrees with it or not, automatically leads to the viewer processing and interpreting the humor purely as a piece of moral-political content since spheres cannot overlap and one must be chosen over the other.

Noticeable trends and obstacles in manually gathered examples:

There are some instances of top jokes being the same across platforms, usually screen-shots of tweets from Twitter. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find there tweets on my own, since they don’t include the keywords or hashtags that I search for. Humor that offhandedly refers to political situations by nicknames or implication has evaded detection and censoring for hundreds if not thousands of years, so I shouldn’t be surprised. People often purposefully self-censor so that their tweets don’t turn up in Twitter searches (which may draw the attention of ill-willed “internet trolls”), so I’ve had difficulty finding tweets in particular. I might look for lists or compiled moments to get around this issue, but those are typically curated by single users and might prove to be invalid sources of general consensus on what is “politically humorous”.