Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Colbert and Top Down Processing

What follows is an abstract of a recent journal article; the article describes a study how a viewer's political affiliation affects how he or she interprets the politics of Stephen Colbert's persona on the Colbert show. What they describe it was psychologists refer to as top-down processing: mental processing that is influenced by your expectations, beliefs, and knowledge. 

More explanation after the abstract.

The Irony of Satire

Political Ideology and the Motivation to See What You Want to See in The Colbert Report

Heather L. LaMarre

The Ohio State University, HLaMarre@gmail.com

Kristen D. Landreville

The Ohio State University

Michael A. Beam

The Ohio State University

This study investigated biased message processing of political satire in The Colbert Report and the influence of political ideology on perceptions of Stephen Colbert. Results indicate that political ideology influences biased processing of ambiguouspolitical messages and source in late-night comedy. Using data from an experiment (N = 332), we found that individual-level political ideology significantly predicted perceptions of Colbert's political ideology. Additionally, there was no significant difference between the groups in thinking Colbert was funny, but conservatives were more likely to report that Colbert only pretends to be joking and genuinely meant what he said while liberals were more likely to report that Colbert used satire and was not serious when offering political statements. Conservatism also significantlypredicted perceptions that Colbert disliked liberalism. Finally, a post hoc analysis revealed that perceptions of Colbert's political opinions fully mediated the relationship between political ideology and individual-level opinion.

It appears that viewers--in particular, conservative viewers--expect that their political views will be shared by Colbert, and so they interpret his (mostly) straight-faced extremely conservative coverage of the news in ways that are consistent with their own beliefs. Even when confronted with evidence that Colbert's conservative views are a put-on (for instance when he laughs while delivering some of his more egregious comments), top-down processing will lead conservative viewers either to ignore those lapses, or to interpret them in some other way--a way that allows them to preserve their view of Colbert as one of them.