Study Suggests Right Wing Authoritarians Aren’t Funny

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This past summer, hackers released documents related to 700,000 cops across the United States, scraped from 251 law enforcement websites. This month, a journalist at Mainer magazine found evidence in that leak showing that cops investigating rioting during Black Lives Matter protests wasted time pursuing people online who were just, well, the technical term is “shitposting.”

For instance, the Department of Homeland Security informed law enforcement personnel that a Sacramento man known as DJ Khiraq was a “violent opportunist” who was “inciting” people to “[burn] down two sports stadiums in California.” What did Khiraq actually do? Well, it turns out Khiraq is was an Oakland Raiders and LA Lakers fan who Tweeted during the protests, “Can y’all burn down the 49ers stadium while y’all at it” and then “Actually fuck dat can y’all burn down the golden 1 center”. Those Tweets got no reactions from his 200 followers, and they were obviously jokes, but the feds decided that it was worth pointing this guy out to cops as a violent person.

Mainer gives several more examples of really obvious shitposts that federal authorities wasted their time cataloging and spreading around to one another. On the one hand, it’s really funny how cops have absolutely zero sense of humor, but on the other hand it’s extremely frustrating that because of that, they’re fucking around with shitposters when they could be, say, actually stopping violent alt-right extremists who are literally murdering people. (Luckily, at least some FBI agents had their sights set appropriately and just stopped alt-right extremists from kidnapping and possibly murdering the governor of Michigan.)

The Mainer’s report comes to us almost concurrently with this fun new study published in Personality and Individual Differences, titled “Right-wing authoritarians aren’t very funny: RWA, personality, and creative humor production.”

“But wait,” you may complain, because you’re a complainer by nature, “humor is subjective! How can you scientifically evaluate who is funny and who isn’t?”

And even though everyone is frankly sick of your complaining, in this case you are correct! Much like with studies on “attractiveness,” we need to be super critical of who gets to decide what is pretty, or what is funny, because these things can vary wildly across cultures.

So this study, like way too much psychological research these days, was performed on American English-speaking college undergrads. I’ll say this for them, though, they were at least racially diverse considering that only 59% were white. Hey, we take what we can get.

186 of these students took surveys to determine their level of authoritarianism, which scientists suss out by asking subjects how much they agree or disagree with statements like “Old-fashioned values show the best way to live.” They also scored their personalities on how conscientious and open to new experiences they are, since in past studies those traits tend to correlate negatively and positively with sense of humor.

Then they basically asked the subjects to be funny while doing things like completing potential joke setups, making up definitions for nonsense word combinations, and captioning single-panel cartoons. This last one is a trick since we all know that the funniest caption will always be “Christ, what an asshole” or, in a pinch, “Hi, I’d like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn.”

They then had eight anonymous raters independently score each response with either 0 (not funny), 1 (sort of funny), or 2 (funny).

And of course, that’s where we run into the issue of “how do we decide what’s funny?” Obviously it’s subjective, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t note how a large population generally feels about a subjective subject. We can say “White heterosexual cisgender American men in their 50s and 60s tend to rate big asses as subjective” even if we can’t say “All men love a big ass.” But the problem with this study is that we only have 8 people rating the responses, and we don’t know anything about those raters. For instance, are they authoritarian? We know from past research that authoritarians tend to find humor in mocking people they feel are beneath them . . . the study authors state “None of the humor tasks involved common targets of authoritarian aggression” but that doesn’t mean that some neo-Nazi can’t make a caption for this cartoon that makes the butt of the joke a Jewish or black person.

So let me state for the record that personally, I do not think a study with only eight raters who we know nothing about is quite rigorous enough for us to make any concrete statements about whether or not right wing authoritarians are humorless. But I will say that as a preliminary study, this has legs, since they did find a “strong, significant result” that showed people who scored higher on right-wing authoritarianism were extremely unfunny. A significant result was still found even when controlling for conscientiousness and openness to new experiences, suggesting that rightwing authoritarianism itself is connected in some way to humor.

I’d love to see something like this expanded upon, and you could easily get more raters via the Mechanical Turk or another system. So let’s get on this, people! Finally science can tell us if Dennis Miller is so unfunny now because he’s right wing authoritarian or if he was actually never funny to begin with. It’s important stuff. We need to get to the bottom of this for the sake of society.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

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