Why Conservatives Can’t Be Funny

Last week the Daily Dish had a smart discussion about why, relative to liberals, conservatives seem to struggle with humor. The Dish post makes a number of good points, but it’s worth noting that the scientific research on humor can also provide an explanation.

According to Peter McGraw — a man who is basically to humor what Kepler is to planetary motion — humor occurs when a “violation” (i.e. a threatening stimulus) is deemed benign due to distance (e.g. it happens to somebody else), a lack of commitment to the violated norm, or an alternative explanation. McGraw’s most recent set of experiments found that benign violations, and thus humor, will be greater when threatening stimuli involve mild violations (“mishaps”) that are near, or major violations (“tragedies”) that are distant. In other words, when your friend trips it’s funny in the moment, but less funny when somebody talks about it later, while the Vietnam war was unfunny for years, but it can now be the butt of jokes.

The conservative inability to be funny can thus be explained by the fact that in recent years all the rhetoric emanating from the Republican party focuses on “close tragedy.” Things like the ticking time bomb of debt and gays in the military will spell doom if something is not done immediately. The proximity and severity of the threats mean that a standard disarming punchline about these issues can fail to truly make the violations benign.

The Dish goes on to quote Michael Oakeshott on conservative ideology:

To be conservative … is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.

This also aligns with McGraw’s research. The conservative preference for the familiar means that conservative are more likely to see deviations from the status quo as a severe threat or “tragedy” rather than a mishap. Our rapidly changing society has left conservatives closely surrounded by these tragedies, and this could mold an outlook that contains less humor.
McGraw, P.A., Warren, C., Williams, L.E., & Leonard, B. (2012). Too Close for Comfort, or Too Far to Care? Finding Humor in Distant Tragedies and Close Mishaps
Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797612443831

Why We Laugh

Wired has a nice profile on Peter McGraw, a UC-Boulder professor who is one of the world’s leading researchers on the psychology of humor.  McGraw’s grand theory is based on the idea of “benign violations.” It holds that comedy results when the violation of something (social norms, moral norms, personal dignity, etc.) is perceived to not be a threat. Like most things, it’s all evolutionary:

McGraw believes that laughter developed as an instinctual way to signal that a threat is actually a false alarm—say, that a rustle in the bushes is the wind, not a saber-toothed tiger. “Organisms that could separate benign violations from real threats benefited greatly,” McGraw says.

The evolutionary account also explains why we enjoy comedy so much. McGraw’s notion of a violation occurs whenever our predictions are proven to be inaccurate.  If the consequence of a bad prediction is venturing into a bush filled with saber-tooth tigers, that makes bad predictions very problematic.  The result is that realizing the consequences of a predictive failure are benign leads an intense influx of positive affect.

McGraw’s blog is here.