About Dannagal Young, Ph.D.: Dannagal Goldthwaite Young is Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Delaware. Dr. Young’s research applies perspectives in political psychology to understand nontraditional partisan media like political satire, talk radio, and misinformation, as in her books Irony and Outrage: The Polarized Landscape of Rage, Fear, and Laughter in the U.S., and Wrong: How Media, Politics, and Identity Drive Our Appetite for Misinformation.

Dr. Young’s work has appeared in important journals of communication and political science, including the Journal of Political Science Education, Public Opinion Quarterly, International Journal of Communication, and Atlantic Journal of Communication. She is co-editor of the collected volumes A Crisis of Civility? Political Discourse and Its Discontents and Breaking Boundaries: In Political Entertainment Studies. Dr. Young is also a committed public-facing scholar, having contributed editorials to publications like The Atlantic, The New York Times, Medium, and Nieman Lab. Her Ted Talk has been viewed over two million times.

Dr. Young is currently a Research Fellow with the University of Delaware’s Center for Political Communication and affiliate of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and the National Institute for Civil Discourse at The University of Arizona. Dr. Young received her M.A. and Ph.D. in Communication from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, and her B.A. in Political Science and French from the University of New Hampshire.

Interview Questions

[MastersinCommunications.com] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you first become interested in the psychology of political communication, and begin to apply perspectives in political and social psychology to study nontraditional forms of political media like satire and misinformation?

[Dr. Dannagal Young] A lot of it has to do with timing. I think, especially in the realm of communication, media, and politics, people are influenced by their cultural context. When I started at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) in 1999, I had come to them as a political philosophy major who was interested in the possibility of applying empirical methods to test some of the assumptions of political philosophy. But right about the time I started my Ph.D., Jon Stewart took over as host of The Daily Show. This really changed the direction of the show, their missions, and their editorial viewpoint.

I was already interested in satire as a possible mode of persuasion. At the time, there were not very many people studying how political satire could shape attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Then, in the second year of my program, 9/11 happened. This changed the direction of The Daily Show. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq became its focus, and this changed the nature of its satire. At the same time as you had David Letterman and Jay Leno offering punchline-oriented jokes, you had the emergence of something very new: a critical kind of news parody that also satirized the media. They satirized the way journalists were covering those wars and the extent to which those journalists were failing to critically interrogate some of the elite claims being made about those wars.

As I was learning about communication theory and especially cognitive theories of media effects, I started thinking about how the way political humor is constructed is so much different than didactic, persuasive political speech. It occurred to me that the nature of those texts likely interacted in an important way with audience psychology to shape recall, attention, arousal, counter-argumentation, and persuasion.

I continued studying political satire for many years, and what became clear was that there had to be some reason why there was so little socially conservative ironic satire. That question followed me everywhere. To try to answer it, I started studying political psychology. I wanted to understand if it was possible that there were different psychological traits on the left and the right that shape both the kinds of aesthetic forms that liberals and conservatives would gravitate toward and see as viable forms of political discourse and if there were psychological traits that would shape the kind of content that liberals and conservatives would even think to make. That led me to my book Irony and Outrage, which came out in 2020.

This opened a new avenue of research for me in political psychology, regarding how differences between the left and the right interact with our messaging environment, and subsequently how they shape people’s processing of these messages. It also opened a route for me to explore our latest crisis du jour, which is misinformation, and to what extent it is a crisis. To what extent is the misinformation itself the problem? Is the problem us? Is it the incentives of our political and media landscape? I would argue it is the latter of those things.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Your first book, as you mentioned, is Irony and Outrage: The Polarized Landscape of Rage, Fear, and Laughter in the United States, which explores the analogy between liberal political humor and right wing talk radio. Would you provide us with some background on this project, and its arguments that these partisan differences in media correspond to distinct psychological and epistemic profiles on the right and the left?

[Dr. Dannagal Young] The book came from my research on satire and the effects of satire. I was finding that exposure to satire, especially among the younger liberal audiences who consumed it, had agenda setting effects. The shows would set the viewers’ agendas and prime them to think about issues, events, and people in a way that increased their weight in the viewers’ subsequent judgements. People would learn certain facts from these shows. They were successful in framing the way people thought about certain issues. We found very high efficacy among viewers. Viewers of these shows felt that they understood their political world and were confident in their abilities to navigate the political landscape. They also talked about politics more than other people and participated more than others.

While I was conducting this research, I was talking to my advisor at the time, Joseph Cappella, at the Annenberg School at Penn. He was a political and health communication expert and had researched the audiences of Rush Limbaugh with Kathleen Hall Jamieson. He said, “It’s so funny, because all of these outcomes are very similar to the ones we find from talk radio.” Some people think of the Limbaugh audience as not very knowledgeable, but they actually are when it comes to the issues that Rush Limbaugh talks about.

On the other side of the aisle, viewers of Colbert, Stewart, and Trevor Noah have their own specific forms of knowledge. Jamieson and Cappella describe this as Balkanized knowledge in their study of Limbaugh. They found that his viewers felt very informed, had a sense of efficacy, talked about politics all the time, participated, and voted — all things we think of as democratically healthy.

This made me ask, “What’s going on here?” We had these two sets of parallel outcomes; on the left you have audiences engaging in normatively good political behaviors, on the right you see audiences engaging in normatively good behaviors. They had different knowledge, different issues topping their agendas, and thought about issues differently, but the nature of those effects are parallel. At the same time, liberals have tried to get into talk radio and opinion talk and outrage and tend not to be as successful at it. Conversely, conservative critics have tried to play the ironic satire game, and have not had much success historically.

The question was, “What is going on with these audiences? Is it possible that there is some psychological trait that could provide an explanatory mechanism that would reconcile or explain these two things?” My work in the book shows two traits that were involved in appreciation of these different forms. The first is need for cognition, or enjoyment of thinking, which tends to be higher among liberals than conservatives. This is not at all to say that conservatives are stupid. Need for cognition is not about ability to process — rather, it is about motivation to think for the sake of thinking, to work through problems and solve riddles. Liberals also have higher tolerance for ambiguity, which means they were more comfortable with uncertainty and unpredictability.

When I put these traits in models looking at liberalism and conservatism and used these lenses to examine audiences’ reactions to Rush Limbaugh on the one hand, and satire like Jon Stewart on the other, they told two opposite stories. Among liberals, the more tolerant you are of ambiguity, the higher the likelihood that you will consume satirical media such as Jon Stewart’s show. Among conservatives, the higher your need for closure (the lower your tolerance for ambiguity), the more likely you are to consume media from Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity. Digging into the literature, this story is one that makes sense.

[MastersinCommunications.com] A good deal of your early career research focused on political satire on late night comedy talk shows. Reflecting on this research, are there particular insights that seem prescient to understanding the post-2016 landscape or key things you think have shifted with respect to the political role of late-night television?

[Dr. Dannagal Young] I was writing Irony and Outrage during the Trump administration when late-night comedy became decidedly unfunny in many ways. Late night hosts were exhibiting characteristics of moral outrage often. My sense is that the Trump administration and the events of that time may have increased their perception of threat. Just because liberals are tolerant of ambiguity does not mean they have no perception of threats at all, it just means their threshold is different. We know that for humor to operate as intended your audience needs to be able to enter a state of play. When threats are elevated, it is very difficult to do that. That could explain what we witnessed from late night hosts during the Trump administration, where we saw them become much more serious, and often plead with us to return to our moral senses.

There are a couple of things people have pushed me on, which I really appreciate, that require additional layers of explanation. One is the fact that conservatives dominate the meme space online. If the chosen mode of political expression of the left is this ironic satire, what does that mean for these memes? Are they not an ironic form of satire? As you dig into them, you find that, even if they present themselves as being ironic, they do not fall under the conventional definition of irony as saying the opposite of what you mean and hoping that the audience deciphers that meaning in the way you intended. Many online memes are not ironic but hyperbolic, or exaggeration-based. Deciphering overstatement is a very different cognitive process than deciphering ironic messages that convey the inverse of what they mean.

Many folks have also asked me about Fox’s new and very successful late night comedy show Gutfeld!, which is hosted by Greg Gutfeld, an entertainer and comedian. He is a humorist in the tradition of Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh was very funny to people who watched his show. He was funny, not ironically, but because he was hyperbolic and would make exaggerated jokes. That is a lot of what Gutfeld does. Some folks have suggested that my work says conservatives are not funny or do not use humor, which is not correct. My specific argument is that the vehicle of ironic humor is less compatible with the conservative psychology. Exaggeration-based humor is actually great for those audiences.

At the same time, my work suggests that, when it comes to whether individuals value the production and consumption of humor, liberals place more value in it than conservatives. There is a scale that measures this, asking questions like, “Do they think it’s important to make jokes in certain contexts? Do they think it’s useful to use humor to diffuse situations?” This scale has been called a “sense of humor scale,” but I like to think of it as a scale that measures our valuation of humor. On that scale, conservatives scored lower across the board.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Your new book, Wrong: How Media, Politics, and Identity Drive our Appetite for Misinformation was published in October of 2023. Would you introduce us to this project? Are there ways in which misinformation mobilizes political satire and the aesthetic of talk radio you mapped in your previous work, and other ways in which it is a unique media phenomenon that reflects different psychological and epistemic frameworks operating in political culture?

[Dr. Dannagal Young] This book came out of what I perceived as a need for a comprehensive, public-facing account of what is going on right now. Lots of conversations are happening about misinformation across various contexts: COVID-19, election denialism, QAnon, conspiracy theories. What is going on? Is it social media’s fault? Is it the fault of one political party? Is it our fault?

I wanted to write a book of translational work that draws on some of my own research but primarily engages the huge amount of work that has come out across disciplines on misinformation. The account of what is happening that I offer is focused on social identity. Social identity plays a role in U.S. politics right now because of the major political parties and the extent to which they have socially sorted along the lines of race, religion, geography, and culture. I draw heavily on the work of Lilliana Mason who has documented this social sorting. Her work gives us particular insight into what happens to individuals when their various identities all align. When a Republican is also white, evangelical Christian, lives in a rural place, and embraces traditional values, this has an impact. Her work has shown that people with high identity alignment are more prone to emotional arousal when encountering identity threats.

What I also find fascinating about this sorting process is that it is asymmetrical. Over time, the Democratic party has become more urban/suburban, agnostic/secular, racially diverse, and more liberal on cultural values. It does not have the same homogeneous profile that we are seeing among Republicans. I think that is exceptionally important because we know from social identity theory that the salience [relevance] of a social identity at any given moment depends on how accessible that identity is and how well it fits. Right now, most Republicans have exceptional fit with their social identity because of the homogeneity in their sociocultural profile. That means that identity salience is going to be high.

For the first part of the book, I explore how social identity shapes our perceptions of the world. We are not motivated as animals to be accurate in our judgements. We are motivated to feel as if we understand our judgments, to feel as if we have control and agency over the world around us, and to be part of a community. This third factor drives how the first two become articulated. Our social identities shape how we understand the world because we want to understand the world in ways that are good for our team, we want to control the world in ways that benefit our team, and we want to be connected with members of our team. All of those drivers shape what we see.

The second half of the book is dedicated to understanding the role of our political media environment in constantly tapping into and reinforcing elements of social identity. They do that for reasons related to power and profit. I have a chapter on the role of political elites in deliberately activating our social identity. When you do so, all kinds of magical things happen related to emotional arousal and mobilization.

Moving to journalists, some of the habits of mainstream journalism, including The New York Times and The Washington Post folks, frame politics as a horserace and a strategic game. This reactivates partisan identity in ways that will continue to fuel this engine. When you look at social media algorithms, you see something very similar. Drawing on the amazing work of Jaime Settle in Frenemies, I explore the combination of discussion, engagement, and identity-based communication that rewards identity-based appeals on social media. Cable news has the incentive to do the same thing.

The result, I argue, is an identity distillation apparatus. Just like with whiskey distillation, media and political elites draw on our social identity and purify it by feeding us information they think we want. We come away from that with a heightened, more distilled sense of what it means to be a good Democrat or Republican, which they draw on and distill over and over again. My hope is that this is a way for folks to understand that the identity-based appeals we see from Congresspeople, the wild allegations we see from folks like Tucker Carlson, and the reason certain things go viral online all come back to this same driving mechanism. The final chapter of the book is about proposed solutions at the level of institutions, journalism, and individuals that may work to interrupt the functioning of this apparatus.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Would you elaborate on how the psychological and epistemic drivers of media consumption are at the root of some of the most contentious problems in U.S. politics today, perhaps discussing the findings of your book or your recent article, “‘I Feel it in My Gut’: Epistemic Motivations, Political Beliefs, and Misperceptions of COVID-19 and the 2020 U.S. Presidential Elections.”

[Dr. Dannagal Young] This piece focuses on the individual-level psychological drivers behind our engagements with political misinformation. There is a wonderful, provocative book by J. Eric Oliver and Thomas J. Wood called Enchanted America. They suggest that, in the United States, the biggest divide is not between right and left but between different epistemic approaches to proof. They suggest that there are intuitionists on one side and rationalists on the other. They argue that, as the Republican Party became home to evangelical Christians, it became home to a certain way of thinking about what is true. Evangelicalism itself has a certain epistemology rooted in intuition, faith, and gut. It is very individualized. There is not a distinct hierarchy, as in Catholicism where you have to worry about what the Pope says. It is a different model.

They present data that suggests these two approaches to truth — intuition versus reason — are highly correlated with partisanship. It is provocative and, on its face, feels right. In response to this, I wanted to look at people’s epistemic motivations and to what extent they thought that gut or instinct was the best way of truth versus thinking about truth in reference to data and evidence. We do not know what they are actually thinking; this is not an fMRI project where I am examining their brainwaves. What we know is what they tell us, and we find that people who report reliance on gut or intuition are more likely to believe misinformation. This finding is repeated by countless studies across domains, not just with COVID-19. Our study found that it played out in consumption of misinformation regarding the 2020 election results as well as COVID-19.

We also found that these things came as a package with support for President Trump. To be clear, we are not sure which way the causal arrow goes. We do not know if people who rely on intuition are attracted to Trump because they think he embodies the same epistemic motives. That might lead them to be attracted to him and trust what he says when he spreads misinformation. It could also be that there is an underlying relationship between coming to truth through intuition and embracing social and culturally conservative values.

[MastersinCommunications.com] You are an engaged public scholar, for which you were recognized with the inaugural Dr. Robert M. Entman Award in Democracy and Political Communication. You frequently contribute to publications like The Atlantic and The Washington Post, and gave an extremely popular 2020 TED Talk on how our psychological traits shape our politics. Could you discuss your commitments to public-facing scholarship and how you approach translating your work to reach nonacademic audiences?

[Dr. Dannagal Young] There is a luxury that comes from being a Full Professor and tenured. I have job security. In political communication and the study of media and democracy, if the work we are doing is not getting outside of the academy, we have failed. Many of us are in this business with normative goals. Most of us believe in democracy and perhaps feel as if media and media structures, norms, and habits, as well as political structures, norms, and habits might not serve democratic health.

To the extent that I can take or translate what I am doing or what my field is doing and put that in front of people who can change norms, structures, and habits for society’s political betterment, that is what I am going to do. Otherwise, it just does not matter. I find it very frustrating to have the same conversations with students and journalists for 20 years, for example, on the harms of strategy framing and episodic framing in politics. These are the same conversations we have been having for two decades. We need to do a better job of translating what we know or finding other ways for the knowledge we produce to match incentives in the political world so that the people who make decisions will make decisions in favor of democratic health.

[MastersinCommunications.com] You are currently a Research Fellow with the University of Delaware’s Center for Political Communication, in addition to working with the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and the National Institute for Civil Discourse at The University of Arizona. Could you tell us a little bit about your experience working across these different research centers? Are there particular projects you would highlight from working with these institutions or future projects that you are most excited about?

[Dr. Dannagal Young] What I like about all of these initiatives is they are very interdisciplinary. You can really start to move the ball down the field because you get out of your silo. At the University of Delaware, we did a lot of work, especially in years past, on various media outlets and how they cover issues, and the extent to which individual attitudes, opinions, and behaviors may be shaped by them. I worked with political scientists on a study looking at psychological and media predictors of support for transgender people and transgender rights.

Not only did we find that television viewing was a positive predictor of supporting transgender people and transgender rights, but we also found that tolerance of ambiguity was a strong and significant predictor of support for transgender rights, even controlling for party and ideology. I have found this work so important, especially given current issues surrounding transgender rights. Why would some individuals be reflexively opposed to some of these policies and even the people themselves? What is driving that?

What I like about working with the Annenberg Public Policy Center is the way it provides a constant venue for collaboration and conversation. There are talks by scholars two or three times a week. They are people from across the country, and we are able to come together, sometimes probe the work they are doing before it has been published, and, again, work across disciplines. Those relationships have allowed me to interview and have in-depth conversations with experts from computer science and psychology studying misinformation, some of which appear in my new book [Wrong: How Media, Politics, and Identity Drive our Appetite for Misinformation].

With the National Institute for Civil Discourse, I coedited a book called A Crisis of Civility? Political Discourse and its Discontents. We edited this volume based on a symposium we held at The University of Arizona. I think the pieces in that book are still some of the best pieces on civility: what it is, how it can be beneficial, and how we need to be careful of calls for civility because they can silence marginalized communities. Calls for civility can be used as a weapon to silence individuals. We need to balance those interests. The reason this book was possible is because we had people from different disciplines — communication, political science, philosophy, psychology, public policy — come to the table to discuss these things.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have advice you would give to students interested in political communication, nontraditional media, or psychological approaches to studying media and politics who are considering pursuing a graduate degree in communication studies?

[Dr. Dannagal Young] I got a great piece of advice from Joseph Turow at the University of Pennsylvania. He said, “Become an expert in something.” I would say the same thing with the caveat that, when you are entering graduate school, you are well positioned to become an expert in some kind of emergent media technology or new political media dynamic. You can become an expert in that, but what is paramount is that you do not become an expert in the thing, but in the theory that informs why that thing matters.

Eventually, that thing is not going to be there. Become an expert in the mechanisms by which certain kinds of content might interact with aspects of individuals’ lives or societies at large. That way, as that thing emerges and changes, you can also emerge and change, and you will have things to say about new things as they come onto the scene.

Thank you, Dr. Young, for sharing your insight on political psychology and political communication as it pertains to understanding satire, misinformation, and more!

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About the Author: Ben Clancy (they/them) is a critical scholar and creative living in Chicago with their partner, child, and other wildlife. They are a PhD candidate at UNC Chapel Hill in the Department of Communication, where their research focuses on the politics of communicative and artistic technologies. Ben has an M.A. from Texas State University, has worked as a research fellow for the Center for Technology Information and Public Life at UNC, and is an alum of the Vermont Studio Center residency in poetry writing.

Please note: Our interview series aims to represent the diverse research being pursued by scholars in the field of communication, which is often socially and politically engaged. As a result, all readers may not agree with the views and opinions expressed in this interview, which are independent of the views of MastersinCommunications.com, its parent company, partners, and affiliates.