The science of satire and lies: Watching Colbert can fight right-wing brain rot

The mainstreaming of lies in the Trump era is hurting our cognitive abilities. Research says satire can save us

By Sophia A. McClennen

Contributing Writer

Published March 17, 2018 10:00AM (EDT)

John Oliver; Donald Trump; Devin Nunes; Stephen Colbert (AP/Getty/Salon)
John Oliver; Donald Trump; Devin Nunes; Stephen Colbert (AP/Getty/Salon)

In a National Rifle Association (NRA) TV ad from February of this year a man stands in front of a TV screen that airs a series of clips. Among them is a shot of John Oliver saying the words “National Rifle Association” and another of Alec Baldwin impersonating Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live.  The rest of the shots are of talk shows, pundits or cable news reporting. As the clips roll, the man takes a sledgehammer to the TV and smashes it. Then a slogan appears: “The truth is our greatest weapon.”

It is a stunningly stupid ad. And it helps explain why the right keeps going after comedians.

It’s also a pretty funny ad, because what better way for the NRA to expose its penchant for aggressive hyperbole and its snowflake logic than to have a man sledgehammer a TV and equate that act with the “truth”?  So according to NRA logic, their weapon is the truth, which is a sledgehammer that they will use on anyone who says things they don’t like. This is the ad they use to suggest they are being misrepresented as aggressive lunatics. Its irrationality is only outdone by its irony.

This weird habit of freaking out over comedians and suggesting that they are threatening the truth isn’t just the domain of the NRA. It’s a right-wing trend.

No one needs reminding of Donald Trump’s incessant agitation over Alec Baldwin’s impersonations of him for "SNL." Recall that Trump wasn’t just upset at the way that he was being presented as a bombastic fool (hardly a creative stretch); Trump also suggested that folks were “forced” to watch the impersonations, that the comedy was “one-sided” and “biased” and that he deserved “equal time.”

But one of the best recent examples of the right-wing witch-hunt over late night comedy came from House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes, who didn’t take kindly to a recent sketch Stephen Colbert did on “The Late Show” that mocked him. Colbert traveled to Washington, D.C. to grill lawmakers about the investigation into the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russia. While there, he released his own redacted memo about Nunes.

Nunes later called into Neil Cavuto’s Fox Business show and called Colbert’s jokes a “danger” to the country. “Conservatives in this country are under attack,” Nunes said. “They attack people who are trying to get to the truth.”

Many of us are aware of the fact that Donald Trump is the most-mocked president in U.S. history. But the other side of the story is that this is the first time in our nation's history that comedians have so consistently been under attack across such a broad range of venues and in such a public way.

So, what is it about these comedians that has the right in such a tizzy?

Clearly, they don’t like being ridiculed. But that isn’t the main reason why these comedians feel like a threat. Instead, the real challenge comedians pose is to the right-wing version of the “truth” that is actually grounded in lies, B.S. and faulty logic. And what really makes the right’s antagonistic attitude towards comedians interesting is the fact that the comedians aren’t just challenging right-wing truth claims; they are thwarting the cognitive processes that lead us to accept right-wing falsehoods as true.

Many of us have pointed out that the real threat to our nation caused by the Trump era is the mind warp it is causing. This is not only true for those who exhibit extreme belief bias and simply accept everything they hear on Fox News; it is also a problem for those of us who would like to remain critically analytical.

We now have significant evidence that the Trump era has created a cognitive load — a mental exhaustion on the nation — one that is so significant that fake news headlines can be taken as true if repeated enough. One study by Gordon Pennycook, Tyrone Cannon and David Rand on the cognitive processing of fake news stories showed that “increased perceptions of accuracy for repeated fake news headlines occurs even when the stories are labeled as contested by fact checkers, or are inconsistent with the reader’s political ideology.”

Back in early 2017, Maria Konnikova wrote a piece that explained what happens to the brain when it has to incessantly process lies. She cited research that shows that the brain has to first accept a lie as true, only to analyze it, then refute it. Over time, the brain tires of that process and slowly starts to accept the lies as true. She refers to a fascinating, if disheartening, 2015 study, that showed that if people repeated the phrase “The Atlantic Ocean is the largest ocean on Earth” enough times, the Atlantic Ocean started to seem like the largest ocean on Earth.

This is all to show that there is now proof that the mainstreaming of lies in the Trump era is indeed rotting our brains. It was first thought that one way to prevent the spread of false information would be to flag it by third-party fact checking, but the study cited above showed that that effort did not sufficiently help.

And that’s where the comedians come in. Thus far there have been no studies that have compared cognitive processing of satire with cognitive processing of falsehoods. But there is significant research to show that it may well be true that the best cognitive defense against Trump era falsehoods is satirical comedy. We know, for instance, that those who consume sarcasm are smarter, more creative and better at reading context. All are useful tools to process lies.

What is most interesting is that processing falsehoods and processing certain types of satire appears to follow a very similar cognitive path. In both cases, the brain has to be able to distinguish between what is said and what is true. And in both cases the brain has to reconcile ambiguity, incongruence and the misuse of words. It further has to process tone, context and body language to infer meaning.

We knew back when Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert were on Comedy Central that their viewers were among the most informed on issues of any group consuming news. But now the role of satire in informing the public may be even more important — satirists may be the one thing that is keeping analytical thinkers engaged.

It’s important to note that sarcastic statements are like a true lie. “You’re saying something you don’t literally mean, and the communication works as intended only if your listener gets that you’re insincere,” explains Richard Chin.

What is perhaps most interesting about the way that satire works as a foil for Trump-era mental manipulations is that satire is designed to go after the three main ways our brains are constantly being duped: lies, B.S. and faulty logic.

In his first 406 days as president, Trump made 2,436 misleading or false claims. Most analysis of Trump’s false statements, like the running tab kept by The Washington Post, lumps his lies together with his bullshit — and that is a mistake. As Pennycook explains, “The difference between bulls**t and lying is that bulls**t is constructed without any concern for the truth. It’s designed to impress rather than inform. And then lying, of course, is very concerned with the truth — but subverting it.”  Understood this way, it seems clear that Trump employs B.S. as much, if not more, than lies. Even better, he admits to it. He recently bragged that he just made up assertions of trade imbalances between the United States and Canada when talking to Justin Trudeau.

Flawed logic is a different thing altogether. These sorts of deceptions can take many forms, but as John Oliver pointed out, one of the Trump team’s favorites is whataboutism. "It implies that all actions regardless of context share a moral equivalency," says Oliver. "And since nobody is perfect, all criticism is hypocritical and everyone should do whatever they want.” Trump practiced whataboutism, for example, when he suggested that there were “many sides” to blame when a neo-Nazi intentionally drove a car into a mass of people and killed protestor Heather Heyer in Charlottesville.

In one example of satire mocking a Trump lie, Colbert called out Trump for claiming that his State of the Union address had the highest number of viewers in history. Colbert remained stunned that Trump needed to lie about his numbers and then decided to respond by using ironic exaggeration: “So let me just say right now, in advance, congratulations to President Trump on winning the Super Bowl. Well played . . . Also, you make a great Black Panther.”

But here is the really interesting part of the story.  We know that fake news headlines, Trump B.S. and NRA skewed logic does in fact get cognitive traction even among those of us not predisposed to accept those falsehoods. Yet, those viewers who watch satire and other types of ironic comedy do not lose the ability to detect the ways that these comedians use creative deception to be funny. Why do we get tired of processing lies, but not of processing ironic comedy? And are satire consumers better at detecting falsehoods?

While more research is needed to fully make the case, there seem to be two main reasons why satire viewers may be better at detecting falsehoods than those who don’t consume this type of humor.

Satire viewers enjoy using their reflective cognitive abilities, which are effortful, typically deliberative and require working memory, over intuitive cognitive abilities, which don’t require higher order cognition. When I spoke with Pennycook about the potential of satire to serve as a defense against Trump era falsehoods, he remained skeptical that satire could strengthen mental fitness as a defense against falsehoods, but he did say that there may well be an overlap between people who are both willing and able to think analytically and satire viewers. “People do break down,” he explained, “according to the degree that they are willing and eager to engage in analytic reasoning.”

A number of studies have suggested that those who support right-wing ideology are more susceptible to bullshit, more governed by belief bias and less tolerant of irony and humorous exaggeration. But as the recent studies on fake news processing show, both the left and the right can fall for fake news. The critical difference, then, isn’t left or right political views, but analytical or intuitive thinkers.

The second part of the story is that processing humor cognitively involves pleasure. There is a cognitive reward for processing a joke that leads to laughter or amusement. Jokes engage both analytical and affective cognitive processes. Watching Samantha Bee or Colbert or Oliver dissect falsehoods is both analytically engaging and fun. The element of fun may be part of the reason why we keep getting the joke but can get worn down by incessant lies. When lies are processed through comedy, we don’t lose the ability to detect them as false.

And that may well be why these comedians keep being attacked as a danger to the NRA, the Trump agenda and right-wing extremism. Each time a comedian ironically makes fun of the right-wing mindset, they help engage our analytical thinking in a fun way.

The problem with the culture of lies — besides the cognitive toll it talks on all of us -- is that it may well be closely tied to a decline in democratic values. A study released this week by the Democracy Voter Study Group found that there is an alarming level of support for authoritarian rule among U.S. voters. Trump himself seems to have no real fondness for democracy, but we now know that only a slim majority of Americans (54 percent) consistently express a pro-democratic position. In addition, the highest levels of support for authoritarian leadership come from those who are disaffected, disengaged from politics, deeply distrustful of experts, culturally conservative and have negative attitudes toward racial minorities. That is also the same demographic that doesn’t like political satire and may even consider it “dangerous” to the nation.

It may be that the right’s real problem with late-night comedy isn’t that they can’t take a joke; it’s that they can’t take what a joke might do to their agenda.

By Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book is "Trump Was a Joke: How Satire Made Sense of a President Who Didn't."

MORE FROM Sophia A. McClennen