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Disparagement humor makes a punchline out of a marginalized group. Racist or sexist jokes, for instance, aren’t just harmless fun – psychologists find they can foster discrimination.
Q: Why did the woman cross the road?
A: Who cares! What the hell is she doing out of the kitchen?
Q: Why hasn’t NASA sent a woman to the moon?
A: It doesn’t need cleaning yet!
These two jokes represent disparagement humor – any attempt to amuse through the denigration of a social group or its representatives. You know it as sexist or racist jokes – basically anything that makes a punchline out of a marginalized group.
Disparagement humor is paradoxical: It simultaneously communicates two conflicting messages. One is an explicit hostile or prejudiced message. But delivered alongside is a second implicit message that “it doesn’t count as hostility or prejudice because I didn’t mean it — it’s just a joke.”
By disguising expressions of prejudice in a cloak of fun and frivolity, disparagement humor, like the jokes above, appears harmless and trivial. However, a large and growing body of psychology research suggests just the opposite – that disparagement humor can foster discrimination against targeted groups.
Jokes that release restraints
Most of the time prejudiced people conceal their true beliefs and attitudes because they fear others’ criticism. They express prejudice only when the norms in a given context clearly communicate approval to do so. They need something in the immediate environment to signal that it is safe to freely express their prejudice.
Disparagement humor appears to do just that by affecting people’s understanding of the social norms – implicit rules of acceptable conduct – in the immediate context. And in a variety of experiments, my colleagues and I have found support for this idea, which we call prejudiced norm theory.
For instance, in studies, men higher in hostile sexism – antagonism against women – reported greater tolerance of gender harassment in the workplace upon exposure to sexist versus neutral (nonsexist) jokes. Men higher in hostile sexism also recommended greater funding cuts to a women’s organization at their university after watching sexist versus neutral comedy skits. Even more disturbing, other researchers found that men higher in hostile sexism expressed greater willingness to rape a woman upon exposure to sexist versus nonsexist humor.
How did sexist humor make the sexist men in these studies feel freer to express their sexist attitudes? Imagine that the social norms about acceptable and unacceptable ways of treating women are represented by a rubber band. Everything on the inside of the rubber band is socially acceptable; everything on the outside is unacceptable.
Sexist humor essentially stretched the rubber band; it expanded the bounds of acceptable behavior to include responses that would otherwise be considered wrong or inappropriate. So, in this context of expanded acceptability, sexist men felt free to express their antagonism without the risk of violating social norms and facing disapproval from others. Sexist humor signaled that it’s safe to express sexist attitudes.
Who’s the target?
In another study, my colleagues and I demonstrated that this prejudice-releasing effect of disparagement humor varies depending on the position in society occupied by the butt of the joke. Social groups are vulnerable to different degrees depending on their overall status.
Some groups occupy a unique social position of what social psychologists call “shifting acceptability.” For these groups, the overall culture is changing from considering prejudice and discrimination against them completely justified to considering them completely unjustified. But even as society as a whole becomes increasingly accepting of them, many individuals still harbor mixed feelings.
For instance, over the past 60 years or so, the United States has seen a dramatic decline in overt and institutional racism. Public opinion polls over the same period have shown whites holding progressively less prejudiced views of minorities, particularly blacks. At the same time, however, many whites still covertly have negative associations with and feelings toward blacks – feelings they largely don’t acknowledge because they conflict with their ideas about themselves being egalitarian.
Disparagement humor fosters discrimination against social groups – like black Americans – that occupy this kind of shifting ground. In our study, we found that off-color jokes promoted discrimination against Muslims and gay men – which we measured in greater recommended budget cuts to a gay student organization, for instance. However, disparagement humor didn’t have the same effect against two “justified prejudice” groups: terrorists and racists. Social norms are such that people didn’t need to wait for jokes to justify expressions of prejudice against these groups.
An important implication of these findings is that disparagement humor can be more or less detrimental based on the social position occupied by the targeted groups. Movies, television programs or comedy clips that humorously disparage groups such as gays, Muslims or women can potentially foster discrimination and social injustice, whereas those that target groups such as racists will have little social consequence.
On the basis of these findings, one might conclude that disparagement humor targeting oppressed or disadvantaged groups is inherently destructive and thus should be censured. However, the real problem might not be with the humor itself but rather with an audience’s dismissive viewpoint that “a joke is just a joke,” even if disparaging. One study found that such a “cavalier humor belief” might indeed be responsible for some of the negative effects of disparagement humor. For prejudiced people, the belief that “a disparaging joke is just a joke” trivializes the mistreatment of historically oppressed social groups – including women, gay people, racial minorities and religious minorities – which further contributes to their prejudiced attitude.
Can you be ‘in on the joke’?
In addition, if one initiates disparagement humor with the positive intention of exposing the absurdity of stereotypes and prejudice, the humor ironically might have the potential to subvert or undermine prejudice.
Chris Rock is one comedian well-known for using subversive disparagement humor to challenge the status quo of racial inequality in the United States. For instance, in his opening monologue for the 2016 Academy Awards, he used humor to call attention to racism in the film industry and hierarchical race relations more generally:
I’m here at the Academy Awards, otherwise known as the White People’s Choice Awards. You realize if they nominated hosts, I wouldn’t even get this job. So y’all would be watching Neil Patrick Harris right now.
The problem is that in order for the humor to realize its goal of subverting prejudice, the audience must understand and appreciate that intention. And there’s no guarantee that they will.
There was a good-spirited intention behind it. So then when I’m on the set, and we’re finally taping the sketch, somebody on the set [who] was white laughed in such a way – I know the difference of people laughing with me and people laughing at me – and it was the first time I had ever gotten a laugh that I was uncomfortable with. Not just uncomfortable, but like, should I fire this person?
Chapelle’s intentions with his racially charged comedy were misunderstood. By lampooning the stereotype, he meant to call attention to the ridiculousness of racism. However, it became apparent that not everyone was capable of or motivated to look past Chapelle’s comic stereotypical portrayal to get his subversive intent.
One study found that people higher in prejudice are particularly prone to misinterpret subversive humor. Researchers in the 1970s studied amusement with the television show “All in the Family,” which focused on the bigoted character Archie Bunker. They found that low-prejudiced people perceived “All in the Family” as a satire on bigotry and that Archie Bunker was the target of the humor. They “got” the true subversive intent of the show.
In contrast, high-prejudiced people enjoyed the show for satirizing the targets of Archie’s prejudice. Thus, for high-prejudiced people, the subversive disparagement humor of the show backfired. Rather than calling attention to the absurdity of prejudice, for them the show communicated an implicit prejudiced norm, conveying a tolerance of discrimination.
Psychology research suggests that disparagement humor is far more than “just a joke.” Regardless of its intent, when prejudiced people interpret disparagement humor as “just a joke” intended to make fun of its target and not prejudice itself, it can have serious social consequences as a releaser of prejudice.
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A meta-analysis looks at the relationship between reading and social ability.
As the founding director of the program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations at the University of Texas, I, and my colleagues, use the humanities and the social and behavioral sciences to teach people in workplaces about people.
Within the humanities, literature plays a significant role in what we teach. Reading literature has many potential benefits, including being able to experience things within a work of fiction that you might not have a chance to experience in real life. In addition, by showing you the world through the eyes of other people, literature can give you a window into others’ thoughts or feelings.
Does that experience create increased empathy and ability to understand others?
Psychologists have begun to explore this question by asking whether reading fiction improves individuals’ sensitivity to other people’s beliefs or emotions compared to either not reading or to reading nonfiction. A paper by David Dodell-Feder and Diana Tamir in the November 2018 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General looked across 14 studies using a technique called meta-analysis to determine whether there is reason to think that reading fiction improves social abilities.
These studies generally had some groups read fiction passages. Most studies had a control group in which people read nonfiction. A few of them had a control group in which the people did not read anything. A few studies compared reading fiction to both a nonfiction and a no-reading control.
Several different measures of social ability were used. Studies looked at people’s ability to read other people’s emotions, to judge their beliefs — and false beliefs, to take other people’s perspectives, and to guess the emotions people would experience in different situations. Some of the measures were self-report measures (“How often do you…”), while others reflected performance in a task.
The authors looked at these studies but also tried to make guesses about how many unpublished studies there are likely to be in which researchers tried to get an effect of reading and failed and thus chose not to submit their paper. When researchers choose not to submit papers that have no effect of a variable, that is called the “file drawer problem.”
Overall, the authors conclude that reading fiction does appear to influence social ability: The effect is small but reliable. In addition, measures of actual performance lead to bigger effects than self-report measures.
If the effects are small, though, are they really worth paying attention to? The authors suggest (and I agree) that they are, for a few reasons:
- First, if there really is a reliable influence of reading fiction on social ability, then this opens up a productive area for further research. It is hard to recommend to researchers that they explore a phenomenon if the studies are unlikely to work.
- Second, most of these studies ask participants to read for a short period of time and then demonstrate an influence soon after. Over time, though, people who read a lot of fiction are likely to develop habits to pay attention to the kinds of information that fiction leads them to consider. So, the effects of reading over the long term are likely to be even stronger than what is observed in these studies (though that is something that future research should tackle).
For now, though, keep a good fiction book around and make reading part of your regular routine.
Dodell-Feder, D. & Tamir, D.I. (2018). Fiction reading has a small positive impact on social cognition: A meta-analysis. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 147(11), 1713-1727.
Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.
Online viewers mirror the emotions of vlogs posted by YouTubers, a study finds.
Do you subscribe to any YouTube channels? Do you feel especially simpatico with a particular YouTuber? Does the emotional content of a YouTube video blog (vlog) mirror the word-emotion associations used by viewers when writing comments about the video blogger (vlogger) or vlog?
These are the kinds of questions that researchers from Tilburg University in the Netherlands were interested in when they began investigating what happens when “birds of a feather flock together” on YouTube.
Their report, “Multilevel Emotion Transfer on YouTube: Disentangling the Effects of Emotional Contagion and Homophily on Video Audience,” was published online today in the journal Social Psychological and PersonalityScience. According to the researchers, this is the first study to use a video-focused social media source such as YouTube to explore emotional contagion and homophily. The term “homophily” (McPherson et al., 2001) refers to the tendency we have to bond with people like ourselves.
We all know from firsthand experience that being around someone who is anxious can make you anxious; being around someone giddy can make you giddy; being around someone grouchy makes you grouchy; and so on. Surprisingly, until now, there’s been relatively little research on how these types of interpersonal emotional “contagions” spread online via YouTube.
For their recent investigation into emotional contagions and homophily on YouTube, a trio of researchers from Tilburg University led by Hannes Rosenbusch examined 2,083 YouTube vlogs that were selected from a pool of 110 vloggers (a.k.a. “YouTubers”) who had at least 10,000 subscribers.
Rosenbusch et al. used a word-emotion association lexicon to measure the range of emotions expressed in user comments on each particular vlog. The NRC Emotion Lexicon is a comprehensive list of English words and their associations with eight emotions—anger, fear, anticipation, trust, surprise, sadness, joy, and disgust—and, more broadly, with negative emotions and positive emotions.
“We find that video- and channel-level emotions independently influence audience emotions, providing evidence for both contagion and homophily effects. Random slope models suggest that contagion strength varies between YouTube channels for some emotions. However, neither dispositional channel-level emotions nor number of subscribers significantly moderate the strength of contagion effects. The present study highlights that contagion and homophily independently shape emotions in online social networks,” the authors said.
As you can see in the diagrams above, there appears to be an immediate (contagion) effect of watching a particular vlog and also a sustained (homophily) effect that leads to YouTuber emotions and viewers’ emotions mirroring each other.
“Our research is a reminder that the people we encounter online influence our everyday emotions — being exposed to happy (or angry) people can make us more happy (or angry) ourselves,” Rosenbusch concluded in a statement.
Follow the Money: Who Were the Highest-Paid YouTubers in 2018?
After reading about the latest research (Rosenbusch et al., 2018) on how emotional contagions can spread like wildfire via YouTube, I was curious to do a deeper dive into the current “birds of a feather flocking together” zeitgeist. Money talks. So, I asked myself: Which YouTubers are creating the biggest “homophily” ripple-effect based on how much income each vlogger generated as a cult-of-personality brand in 2018?
A quick Google search led to a recent Forbes article listing the “Highest-Paid YouTube Stars of 2018.” Based on these rankings, I’ve curated a top-ten list of vlogs from these YouTubers. If you have time, take a few minutes to watch some of these vloggers as a “homophily” guinea pig.
Does watching any of the vlogs below make you feel as if you’ve been exposed to a positive or negative emotional contagion, thus corroborating the latest findings by Rosenbusch and colleagues at Tilburg University?
Forbes List: Top-Ten Highest-Earning YouTube Stars 2018
10. Logan Paul Vlogs (8,688,873 subscribers/2018 Earnings: $14.5 million)
9. PewDiePie (78,487,516 subscribers/2018 Earnings: $15.5 million)
8. Jacksepticeye (21,040,954 subscribers/2018 Earnings: $16 million)
7. Vanoss Gaming (24,023,654 subscribers/2018 Earnings: $17 million)
6. Markiplier (22,702,844 subscribers/2018 Earnings: $17.5 million)
5. Jeffree Star (11,722,503 subscribers/2018 Earnings: $18 million)
4. DanTDM (20,809,880 subscribers/2018 Earnings: $18.5 million)
3. Dude Perfect (37,594,502 subscribers/2018 Earnings: $20 million)
2. Jake Paul (17,624,706 subscribers/2018 Earnings: $21.5 million)
1. Ryan ToysReview (17,585,225 subscribers/2018 Earnings: $22 million)
Hannes Rosenbusch, Anthony Evans, and Marcel Zeelenberg. “Multilevel Emotion Transfer on Youtube: Disentangling the Effects of Emotional Contagion and Homophily on Video Audiences” Social Psychological and Personality Science (First published online: December 27, 2018) DOI: 10.1177/1948550618820309
Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin, and James M. Cook. “Birds of a Feather: Homophily in Social Networks” Annual Review of Sociology (Volume publication date: August 2001) DOI: 10.1146/annurev.soc.27.1.415
Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.