Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The science of satire

Mahzarin R. Banaji, a professor of psychology at Harvard, has a good article called "The Science of Satire" up at The Chronicle of Higher Education. (It's free.) Lots of smart people have weighed in on why the notorious New Yorker cover is not good satire, but Banaji explains why depictions of the Obamas as terrorists leaves an indelible imprint on our brains, even if we do not believe it to be true:
For decades, psychologists have described the "sleeper effect" — the idea that information, even information we might reject at first blush, ends up persuading us, contrary to our intention, over time. That often occurs when the content of the message (Obama=Islamist) and the source providing the message (The New Yorker trying to be cute) have split off in our minds. When satire isn't done right, as in the case of the Obama cover, the intended parody easily splits off from the actual and more blatant association. The latter then has the power to persuade over the long haul, when conscious cognition isn't up to policing it. Communicators of mass media should be alert to that, so that decisions about particular portrayals are based on knowledge of their full impact, and the justification for the supposedly sophisticated cognitive function they serve offered in light of such basic knowledge.

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