How satire and talk shows illustrate the psychology of the left and right

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Last Tuesday, Professor Dannagal Young explored arguments backed by extensive research as to how and why the media targets the left and right differently.

Senior Reporter

What do the audiences of Sean Hannity and John Oliver have in common? More than you might think, according to Dannagal Goldthwaite Young, an associate professor of communication.

Last Tuesday, Morris Library hosted the 2019 Faculty Lecture, an annual event sponsored by the Friends of the University of Delaware Library. This year, Young explored arguments backed by extensive research as to how and why the media targets the left and right differently.

Audiences on both sides of the political spectrum lack faith in many core democratic institutions. However, they maintain high political interest and high knowledge and engagement levels, so why are the genres of television they engage in so distinct?

“An abundance of political satire comes from the left, while opinion-based shows thrive on the right,” Young noted. “Neither side has been very successful at adopting the other’s genre, and it has something to do with the psychology of those watching.”

Political satire is a genre guided by ambiguity, play, deliberation and openness, while political talk shows are guided by certainty, vigilance, instinct and boundaries. These are qualities, Young believes, that are often associated with liberals and conservatives, respectively.

“In terms of psychology, [liberals and conservatives] differ in two main ways; tolerance for ambiguity and need for cognition,” Young said.

According to Young, conservatives have low tolerance for ambiguity and low need for cognition, while liberals have high tolerance for ambiguity and high need for cognition.

“Conservatives are hard-wired for threat identification, they want everything presented to them as straight-forward as possible,” Young said. “That’s why shows with personalities like Sean Hannity are so popular on the right; he tells them exactly what they should be scared of and why, with no funny business.”

Young said that, when it comes to their news, conservatives find it important that there is no room for doubt. On the other hand, liberals are unlikely to take anything at face value, and prefer programming that allows them to draw their own conclusions.

“Political satire, on the other hand, requires a high level of cognition to understand, and that’s why it’s so popular on the left,” Young continued. “The audience ultimately has to make up their own mind about the issues presented and how to interpret what they’ve been told, and that sits much better with liberals than conservatives.”

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