Tag Archives: Confirmation Bias

Confirmation Bias, Satire, and Stephen Colbert

Stephen Colbert

By: Christopher C. Duke, PhD

Even if you are not a psychologist, you have probably heard of confirmation bias. Whether you have heard of it or not, you have most certainly seen it and engaged in it. Confirmation bias is the very human tendency to seek out information that confirms our existing world views rather than challenges them. Likewise, we tend to interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting our views (Balcetis & Dunning, 2006). We all know people who have strong political views on particular topics. Are they likely to read and watch material that supports their views, or opposes their views? What about ourselves? We tend to think of ourselves as rational and logical judges of the world around us, but this is often not the case. Confirmation bias is well illustrated in the following quote (courtesy of You Are Not So Smart) from Terry Pratchett’s The Truth.

“Be careful. People like to be told what they already know. Remember that. They get uncomfortable when you tell them new things. New things…well, new things aren’t what they expect. They like to know that, say, a dog will bite a man. That is what dogs do. They don’t want to know that man bites a dog, because the world is not supposed to happen like that. In short, what people think they want is news, but what they really crave is olds…Not news but olds, telling people that what they think they already know is true.”

Confirmation bias is a long established phenomenon in social psychology, but more recent research applies confirmation bias to satire. Satire is interesting in that it supports one type of argument through making the opposing argument, allowing a huge potential for confirmation bias to influence our interpretation. As a result, satire is often misunderstood, such as in the case of Archie Bunker from All in the Family. Bunker was written as an ignorant and racist character, intended by creator Norman Lear to satirize bigotry and be disliked by the audience. Surprisingly to Lear, a segment of the audience saw Bunker not as satire, but as a role model (Vidmar & Rokeach, 1974).

More recent research has turned its eye to how people interpret The Colbert Report. Stephen Colbert, in his own words, plays a parody of certain types of conservative pundits. Prior evidence suggests that some of the people intended to be Colbert’s satirical targets actually believe Colbert supports them, such as when Colbert was invited to host the 2006 White House Press Correspondents Dinner, or when presidential candidate Mike Huckabee thanked Colbert for his endorsement. In the study by LaMarre, Landreville, and Beam (2009) participants provided a range of survey data, including their political orientation and beliefs about The Colbert Report. More liberal participants believed Colbert was liberal and that the show was satirical. More conservative participants believed Colbert was conservative and genuinely believed his “satirical” arguments. Essentially, viewers of liberal and conservative orientations tended to perceive Colbert as supporting whatever views they personally held. Some might interpret these findings as unfavorable towards conservatives. However, everyone can be prone to these types of biases, and believing you are immune may make you more vulnerable. Without a doubt, political orientation is no inoculation against cognitive and social biases.

Here is one tip for overcoming confirmation bias within yourself: When most people do “reality testing” they seek information that confirms their existing views are correct. Instead, try to do the opposite. Try to find evidence that argues against your existing views. It may be uncomfortable, but it can be more likely to lead to information that is accurate rather than just comforting.

Balcetis, E., & Dunning, D. (2006). See what you want to see: Motivational influences on visual perception. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 612-625.

LaMarre, H. L., Landreville, K. D., & Beam, M. A. (2009). The Irony of satire: Political ideology and the motivation to see what you want to see in The Colbert Report.  International Journal of Press/Politics, 14, 212-231.

Vidmar, N., & Rokeach, M. (1974). Archie Bunker’s bigotry: A Study in selective perception and exposure. Journal of Communication 24, 36–47.