2016 witnessed the election of Donald Trump thanks in a large part to Russian meddling in the American democratic process. One of the most effective things that the Russians did was lie and spread contradictory information to make it hard for people to discern reality. Trump’s marketing skills made use of these Russian efforts to convince people to vote for him (by a very small margin and still lost the popular vote). How do we get out from the propaganda launched by Russia, Trump, and others?
The answer might just be late night comedians. Yes, a country run by a celebrity famous for being born rich will be saved by other rich celebrities. At the very least it’ll be great to see elevated discourse!
This is all to show that there is now proof that the mainstreaming of lies in the Trump era is indeed rotting our brains. It was first thought that one way to prevent the spread of false information would be to flag it by third-party fact checking, but the study cited above showed that that effort did not sufficiently help.
And that’s where the comedians come in. Thus far there have been no studies that have compared cognitive processing of satire with cognitive processing of falsehoods. But there is significant research to show that it may well be true that the best cognitive defense against Trump era falsehoods is satirical comedy. We know, for instance, that those who consume sarcasm are smarter, more creative and better at reading context. All are useful tools to process lies.
What is most interesting is that processing falsehoods and processing certain types of satire appears to follow a very similar cognitive path. In both cases, the brain has to be able to distinguish between what is said and what is true. And in both cases the brain has to reconcile ambiguity, incongruence and the misuse of words. It further has to process tone, context and body language to infer meaning.
We knew back when Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert were on Comedy Central that their viewers were among the most informed on issues of any group consuming news. But now the role of satire in informing the public may be even more important — satirists may be the one thing that is keeping analytical thinkers engaged.
The New Yorker is one of my favourite magazines and the first thing I do when I open it is to read all the cartoons. Some are hilarious and others just don’t resonate with me and in the TED Talk below you can see that having a mixed bag of humour is important. Regular readers will already know the benefits of laughter so here’s a meta-analysis of what works in making us laugh.
The New Yorker receives around 1,000 cartoons each week; it only publishes about 17 of them. In this hilarious, fast-paced, and insightful talk, the magazine’s longstanding cartoon editor and self-proclaimed “humor analyst” Bob Mankoff dissects the comedy within just some of the “idea drawings” featured in the magazine, explaining what works, what doesn’t, and why.
I’m a big fan of laughing and fun in general. Often I don’t understand why we can’t laugh at how messed up lives or world seems because I like to laugh at how ridiculous things can be seen. Reader’s Digest has an article on how we can use laughter to get through tough times.
The worse things get, the funnier I think they are–that’s just how I grew up, how I learned to handle things,” she says. “But aside from that, I think you have to be funny so that other people don’t freak out. I mean, it’s fine to be going ‘Oh my God, I have cancer’ with your closest friends. But you can’t do that with everyone; you can’t ask the entire world to buoy you up.”
Dark humor is also, for Rich, a thumb in the eye to pain. “With cancer, it’s saying ‘You can take my body, but you’re not taking my mind,'” she says. “There’s a form of macho defiance there I really like.”
Humor also puts people at ease. Robert Reich is terrific at this. The former Clinton Labor secretary is four feet ten inches tall, born with a congenital disorder that stunted his growth. When he was running for governor of Massachusetts a few years ago, he’d start his speeches with “They told me to be short.” Or, standing on a step stool, he’d announce, “I’m the only candidate with a real platform.” His audience was comfortable with his height because he was comfortable. It’s a sophisticated form of consideration.
A twisted sense of humor, I realized recently, is the common denominator among the most loving, considerate people I know. A few years ago, my friend Spencer’s father died; this year, Spencer spent much of his time at the bedside of his mother, who was waging a long battle with heart disease. He loved her deeply, but he’s not exactly a sensitive New Age guy. A theater fanatic, he said only this in the e-mail announcement when his mother died: “Well, I can finally join the chorus of Annie.”