Your Brain on Politics: What Neuroscience Reveals about Political Orientation and Sense of Humor

James Belarde//

“Anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.” -Douglas Adams, in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

On April 29, 2006, an unexpected performance went exactly as anyone should have expected. Having been invited as the featured entertainer at that year’s White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, Stephen Colbert took to the podium and delivered a routine in character as the host from his show, The Colbert Report. Created as a parody of conservative media pundits, the show was well-known for satirizing conservative views by portraying Colbert as a right-wing political commentator that exaggerated support of these views to a comically ridiculous effect. Thus, when Colbert’s critically ironic praise for the Bush administration (with the President seated just a few feet away) was met with cosmic silence, no one should have been surprised.

Since comedy’s earliest known works, politics and humor have often intertwined. The ancient Greek comic playwright Aristophanes, sometimes called the “Father of Comedy,” relied almost exclusively on the political landscape of his time for his comedies. Of course, political humor is rarely, if ever, politically neutral, and appreciation of such comedy would seem to require a political alignment that coincides with that of the comedian. However, ongoing research in neuroscience and psychology is uncovering evidence for a more complex conclusion: one’s perception of humor is tightly correlated with one’s political orientation regardless of whether that humor is politically focused. And, perhaps more fascinating, these psychological qualities can be associated with measurable differences in the brain.

To examine political variations in humor perception, Heather LaMarre and colleagues actually showed segments of The Colbert Report to a group of subjects and then analyzed differences in how self-identified liberals and conservatives perceived Colbert’s humor.1 Surprisingly, both conservatives and liberals in the study reported finding these videos funny to similar degrees. However, the two groups differed in their conclusions about Colbert’s own political ideology. Liberal participants claimed Colbert used satire and was not serious about his hyperbolic conservative statements. Conservatives, on the other hand, were much more likely to say Colbert’s comments were genuine; he was only adopting a joking affect for entertainment. Both groups enjoyed the clips, but there was a fundamental difference in how they perceived “reality,” or the intent underlying the ambiguous humor.

Based on this study, one is inclined to agree with the opinion that comedy is primarily a liberal artform, one that conservatives just don’t get. However, this seems a bit simplistic. After all, conservatives did enjoy Colbert’s humor (if for the wrong reasons), and even Aristophanes, the “Father of Comedy” himself, was conservatively-minded in his plays.2 Are there perhaps differences in humor preferences rather than a difference in having a sense of humor at all?

Aristophanes: ancient Greek playwright, “Father of Comedy,” Republican?!

Research led by Willibald Ruch in Germany suggests this may be so. Setting out to examine differences in senses of humor across a variety of ages, Ruch administered surveys to thousands of participants with ages ranging from the teens to the mid-fifties.3 Though he did note significant differences based on age, further analysis showed that these were almost entirely driven by differences in reported levels of conservatism. Conservative respondents often preferred a type of humor classified as incongruity-resolution over nonsense humor. Liberal participants were more likely to report enjoyment of nonsense humor.

In humor theory, incongruity-resolution is essentially a fancy name for the most familiar type of joke format: a setup, followed by a punchline. To borrow a favorite example from the late comedian Mitch Hedberg, “I’m sick of following my dreams, man. I’m just going to ask where they’re going and hook up with ‘em later.”4 Here, the first sentence sets up a common concept (pursuing one’s dreams), while the punchline introduces a seemingly incongruous follow-up statement. This incongruity “resolves” only after realizing he is treating following dreams like one might treat making plans with friends, and this resolution leads to laughter.

Compare this to nonsense jokes, which involve an absurdity that cannot be entirely resolved. Though still classified as humor, this lingering ambiguity creates a joyful comic experience for those that appreciate it. Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is rich with nonsense humor. For example, take the famous line, “The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.”5 Here, there is no obvious incongruity to resolve. The line is absurd, but the very absurdity of the statement makes it funny.

Colin Firth, neuroscience nerd disguised as a world-famous actor (photo by Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 3.0)

What does it mean, then, that the results in Ruch’s study suggest liberals are more likely to appreciate nonsense humor, while conservatives strongly prefer incongruity resolution? Evidence for one possible explanation comes indirectly from an MRI study that looked at differences in brain volume between liberals and conservatives.6 Conducted by a team that included Academy Award-winning actor Colin Firth (because apparently a relaxing thing to do in your downtime as a highly successful actor is participate in peer-reviewed academic research), their results showed that liberalism was associated with an increased volume of the anterior cingulate cortex.

Interestingly, the anterior cingulate is most often seen as a sort of conflict mediator in the brain, one that works to help monitor uncertainties and navigate contradictions rather than avoid them. In fact, the anterior cingulate region of the brain shows the greatest activation in studies where participants are asked to solve difficult word puzzles. And in humor neuroimaging research, subjects who show greater activation of their anterior cingulate when they are shown a joke are more likely to rate that particular joke as funnier than those who show weaker anterior cingulate activity.7

Brain MRI with the anterior cingulate cortex highlighted in yellow

In correlating liberalism with increased anterior cingulate volume, Firth and his fellow researchers hypothesize that a larger anterior cingulate cortex may imply a higher tolerance for uncertainty. This, they suggest, could predispose individuals to having more liberal views. And while it isn’t the focus of their work, it could also help explain why increased liberalism predicts a greater appreciation for nonsense humor. After all, enjoying jokes that present an unresolvable ambiguity requires a comfort with uncertainty that liberals may be uniquely attuned for with a more active anterior cingulate.

Of course, it is only fair to note that this doesn’t mean liberals process information “better” than conservatives do. (Full disclosure: I am a huge fan of nonsense humor, which you can interpret as you will.) Rather, the two seem to rely on different cognitive approaches. In the same study with Colin Firth, the researchers saw conservatives had a larger amygdala, the brain region involved primarily in emotional memory and fear processing. Thus, while liberals may be better equipped for accepting uncertainty, conservatives might be more adapted to navigating fearful or threatening situations.

Brain MRI with amygdala highlighted in red

Although these observations are only simple correlations that lack an explanation for why these features are related, the studies above are informative for future research on the neuropsychology and biology of both politics and art appreciation. And while it may seem silly to focus so much attention on questions of political preference, sense of humor, and the underlying neural functions that unite them, the answers reveal deeper insights into how we psychologically process our chaotic environment (jokes included!). This information could facilitate more effective communication among groups of varying political views, something that seems increasingly pressing in the tense, highly polarized political environments seen in the United States. After all, if two groups struggle to agree on a satirical comedian’s political alignment, something as complex as healthcare policy would benefit from a more psychologically informed dialogue.

References

  1. LaMarre, H.L., Landreville, K.D., and Beam, M.A. “The Irony of Satire: Political Ideology and the Motivation to See What You Want to See in The Colbert Report.” The International Journal of Press/Politics. 2009; 14(2):212-231.
  2. Hadas, Moses. “Introduction.” The Complete Plays of Aristophanes, edited by Moses Hadas. (Bantam Dell, 2006).
  3. Ruch, W., McGhee, P.E., and Hehl, F.J. “Age Differences in the Enjoyment of Incongruity-Resolution and Nonsense Humor During Adulthood.” Psychology and Aging. 1990; 5(3):348-355.
  4. Mitch Hedberg. “Movie Plot.” Mitch All Together, Comedy Central Records, 2003.
  5. Adams, Douglas. The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. (Del Rey, 2002), 25.
  6. Kanai, R., Feilden, T., Firth, C., and Rees, G. “Age Differences in the Enjoyment of Incongruity-Resolution and Nonsense Humor During Adulthood.” Psychology and Aging. 1990; 5(3):348-355.
  7. Weems, Scott. Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why. (Basic Books, 2014).

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