I: Individual social psychological processes



How humor can promote central-route persuasion: The role of ambivalence

Madelijn St rick

One of my students recently asked a group of research participants to watch a video of British comedian Russell Howard. The video shows Howard on stage, telling the true story of a 14-year-old boy who has terminal cancer. The boy’s parents send Howard an e-mail asking him to come and see the boy. During the visit, the boy turns out to have a great sense of humor. He shares with Howard a list of his favourite Russell Howard performances, including Mr Dildo, a TV show in which Howard dresses up in a six-foot-high phallus costume. The boy invites Howard to his funeral, and he asks Howard to come dressed as Mr Dildo. Russell hesitates but eventually agrees. By a miraculous turn of luck, however, the boy survives his cancer. At the end of the video, the boy joins Howard on stage, smiling broadly and dressed as Mr Dildo.

The research participants reported that they found the comedy piece very funny, but also ‘touching’ and ‘moving.’ It induced a reflective state in them. One participant reported the story had taught her ‘to celebrate life.’ Others wrote that the story convinced them that ‘people should plan their funerals’ and ‘humor is the best way to fight fear.’

The example suggests that comedy can make people think and change their perspective on serious issues. But which aspect of the story made this happen? Was it the humor? To what extent was it important that the story' also moved the viewers? Under what circumstances can humor persuade people to change their opinion about important matters?

Persuasion researchers generally assume that humor does not change people’s perspective on significant topics. This assumption is based on the idea that humor reduces motivation and ability to elaborate on messages and thereby precludes high-involvement persuasion. In this chapter, I challenge the generalisability of that position. I discuss theory' and evidence suggesting that humor can provoke mixed emotions (e.g., of sadness and joy). Research on ambivalence illustrates that the experience of mixed feelings mobilises effortful information processing. Based on these notions, I propose that to the extent humor elicits ambivalence, it encourages central-route processing and high-involvement persuasion.

I first review a research program illustrating the persuasive role of one-sided (i.e. purely positive) humor in advertising low-involvement products. I present studies showing that one-sided humor only persuades in low-involvement contexts, not in high-involvement contexts. Then, I provide preliminary evidence for the idea that two-sided humor (i.e. humor that elicits both positive and negative feelings) elicits effortful information processing and promotes high-involvement persuasion. The reviewed studies draw from a variety of communication settings, from advertising to political satire to stage comedy. I end with open questions and promising avenues for future research.

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