Saturday, March 26, 2011

Humor and Learning

Do we learn more when laughing?  Does humor help, or hinder, learning?

The answer to that second question is -- yes.  Both.  At least according to something called Instructional Humor Processing Theory, which comes out of education research so I'm uncertain as to whether we can safely apply this to, say, whether or not people learn from Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert.  In the study I'm looking at, appropriate humor aids learning, inappropriate humor does not.  The latter includes other-disparaging (I assume saying bad things about other people) humor, the basis of my educational efforts, and offensive humor, also an important aspect of my pedagogical approach.  In other words, clearly I deserve the blame for my students not learning from me.

Can we apply these findings and theory at all to late-night faux news comedy shows?  I don't think so, which is too bad because it's an unanswered question whether humor gets in the way of political learning.  My gut feeling is humor draws attention, which should increase learning, but the laughter kicks in and we actually don't learn as much as we think we learn from the content.  We can only process so much information, and emotion can often get in the way of cognition.

So how do we explain surveys that find positive associations between watching The Daily Show or The Colbert Report and scores on political knowledge?  Cross-sectional data, even with statistical controls, can be awfully misleading.  I'm not saying there isn't a relationship, I'm merely saying we need more careful experiments to really tease this one out.

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