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Humor Promotes Spread and Retention of News, Study Finds

Woman sitting on couch, smiling at TV with remote in hand

Key Takeaways

  • A recent study revealed humor can be a useful tool in information sharing and retention.
  • Information is more easily digested when presented in a comedic way, and encourages sharing of newly learned concepts and ideas.
  • Over the last several years, experts have seen that political comedy has contributed to civic engagement

Have you ever wondered why those silly mnemonic devices from grade school always stick with you? There is a prevalent hypothesis that humor plays a heavy role in data retention. This theory has been tested in different settings and fields, including a recent report published in the Journal of Communications.

This study focused on humor's relationship to politics and perspectives, and researchers found that information, especially in connection to current events, had higher chances of being both remembered and shared if the content made the participant giggle.

The Tonight Show and The Colbert Report are great examples of programming that ties together comedy and current events. Programs like these have increased in popularity over time, and have ultimately resulted in widespread consumption of political happenings.

Divyka K. Chhabra, MD, a board certified psychiatrist in New York City, says, “One component could be the increase of current events being shared and discussed over social media, which is still a new concept. On social media, there are fewer rules surrounding how something is presented, let's say, as compared to the TV or the news, so there's more free reign over how to express issues.”

What Did the Study Show?

Within the study, participants were asked to watch several video clips of news anchor auditions, read comedic versus non-comedic anchor scripts, and answer questions in relation to what they had seen and remembered. After this, neuroimaging was done on participants in an effort to test how different lobes of the brain responded to the materials the participants found funny. 

Haley Neidich

Humor is a very effective way to retain attention as it creates an emotional connection and a sense of entertainment for the individual watching.

— Haley Neidich

According to their data collected through both the imaging and behavioral studies, the researchers proposed that media networks that get chuckles from their audience have had a major hand in creating an effective democracy.

Haley Neidich, LCSW says, “Humor is a very effective way to retain attention as it creates an emotional connection and a sense of entertainment for the individual watching. Humor also releases feel-good hormones for people who are engaged with the content so it is actually physically enjoyable for them to keep watching. Finally, humor helps people to feel more connected to one another, and with so many folks feeling lonely, that's a pretty powerful thing.”

Humor's Role in Retention and Communication

This study confirmed that an individual's learning environment is a major factor in determining whether information is retained and shared. Neidich says, “In politics, humor can be perceived as a break from the status quo and makes the individual speaking seem more approachable and interesting. Having a positive perspective of someone makes it much more likely that you're willing to listen to their perspective.”

Divyka K. Chhabra, MD

Humor can be an effective and healthy way to process and cope with more difficult emotions. If we are able to process and cope better, this means we may have more bandwidth to take action and make change.

— Divyka K. Chhabra, MD

Important considerations for this study, however, revolve around the participant base, as a majority of those involved in the research self-identified as Democrat or liberal. This does not alter the impact of a good laugh, but could potentially inform what content is utilized for the purpose of comedy.

There are several reasons why individuals may respond better to situations that give them a good laugh, even if the subject matter itself is not light. Chhabra says, “Humor can be an effective and healthy way to process and cope with more difficult emotions. If we are able to process and cope better, this means we may have more bandwidth to take action and make change."

Chhabra continues, "However, when using humor it's important that you aren't downplaying or minimizing the importance of the topic—especially if it is a topic that doesn't directly relate to you. Humor is effective when used in moderation and to help with coping rather than avoid coping.”

What This Means For You

Many of us learn better when we are invested in a topic. This data shows that what makes us laugh is also linked to whether or not we will remember that information.

If you are an educator or an organizer, consider ways to tap into your audience in nontraditional ways. Making content relatable is always a useful goal, but making it funny can not only boost the chances that the content will be understood and spread!

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  1. Coronel JC, O’Donnell MB, Pandey P, Delli Carpini MX, Falk EB. Political humor, sharing, and remembering: insights from neuroimagingJournal of Communication. Published December 22, 2020. doi:10.1093/joc/jqaa041

  2. Delli Carpini, M. X. Entertainment media and the political engagement of citizens. The SAGE Handbook of Political Communication. 2012. doi:10.4135/9781446201015.n2

  3. Young, D. G., Bagozzi, B. E., Goldring, A., Poulsen, S., & Drouin, E. Psychology, political ideology, and humor appreciation: Why is satire so liberal? Psychology of Popular Media Culture. 2019;8(2):134-147. doi:10.4135/9781446201015.n2