Why Do Conservatives Like Stephen Colbert?
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
So ... Stephen Colbert doesn't really mean all those wacky liberal-bashing things he says, does he? Comedy Central's The Colbert Report is obviously a parody of a wing-nut right-wing talk show. Right?
Or ... is it? (Cut to devilishly quizzical chin-grabbing stare.)
He can't be serious.
Or ... can he sort of be? (Cut to screeching bald eagle.)
Well, apparently Colbert is just that good. His character is so pitch-perfectly ambiguous that, according to a new study, what it is you see in him is whatever it is you want to see in him. If you are liberal, he is a liberal, too. If you are a conservative, he is a conservative, just like you.
And if you are a bear, well, good luck.
Colbert is, it would appear, a fun-house mirror to the deepest recesses of your political soul.
In order to test this scientifically, Heather L. LaMarre, along with Kristen D. Landreville and Michael A. Beam (all communications doctoral students at The Ohio State University), subjected 322 participants with a mix of political ideologies to a three-minute 2006 video clip of Stephen Colbert discussing media coverage of the Iraq war with "super liberal lefty" radio host Amy Goodman.
They then asked participants to evaluate Colbert's ideology and his attitude towards liberalism. What they found was that the more liberal participants reported their own ideology to be, the more liberal they thought Colbert was. And the more conservative they reported their own ideology to be, the more conservative they thought Colbert was. Both, however, found him equally funny. The results are published in the April edition of the International Journal of Press/Politics.
"Liberals will see him as an over-the-top satire of Bill O'Reilly-type pundit and think that he is making fun of a conservative pundit," LaMarre explained. "But conservatives will say, yes, he is an over-the-top satire of Bill O'Reilly, but by being funny he gets to make really good points and make fun of liberals. So they think the joke is on liberals."
How can this be? Are they really both watching the same Stephen Colbert? Actually, the reason is pretty simple. It is a phenomenon that has been familiar to social psychologists for a long time: confirmation bias. "When you look at social psychology and you see how people process information, people see what they want to see," said study co-author Landreville. "They take whatever they want out of that message. So if I'm a liberal, I'll have my liberal goggles on when I'm watching The Colbert Report and I'll think he's a liberal."
Confirmation bias is likely to be especially pronounced in satire because one of the things about satire — especially the deadpan, bald-eagle satire of Colbert — is that it is chock-full of ambiguity and uncertainty. This leaves lots of opportunities for a viewer to fill in the blanks — a kind of choose-your-own-truthiness, if you will.
"The nature of satire, when you boil it down, is that messages are to varying degrees implied messages," explained Lance Holbert, a professor of communications at The Ohio State University who studies the intersection of entertainment and politics. "It requires the audience to fill in the gap, to get the joke. And it requires a certain bit of knowledge to fill in the gap. ... Certain types of humor are much more explicit. In satire the humor is very complex."
LaMarre got interested in the question of how audiences interpret Colbert back in 2007, when she started puzzling over how several appearances by Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee had seemingly helped to jump-start Huckabee's campaign from out of nowhere. Was it a joke? Or what?