Understanding satire: Cognitive biases and satire

Jonathan Swift observed: “Satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind reception it meets with in the world, and that so very few are offended with it.”

If we’re really going to understand satire, we must appreciate that sometimes it might be actually be critiquing us. This is not as easy as it sounds because it requires an awareness of our own cognitive biases.

Studying satire can develop these critical literacy skills in students. Therefore, it may be beneficial to explore cognitive biases within a satire unit. An understanding of confirmation bias, in particular, would helpful when conducting research, reading and writing satire, or even casual surfing of the web.

Studies have shown that people are more likely to believe that satire (this also applies to junk news) is real if it confirms their pre-existing biases. If you strongly dislike Donald Trump, for example, you are much more likely to be duped by a fake news article that makes him look bad. If you oppose Justin Trudeau, you are more susceptible to believing fake news about him. Our default position is to scrutinize information we disagree with and quickly accept information we agree with. This is a problem. Instead, we need to be especially skeptical of information that seems to confirm our biases.

Julia Galef has an excellent TED Talk that explores the emotional basis behind cognitive biases and motivated reasoning.

Recently, I wrote an article explaining a few cognitives biases with humorous examples for Mennonites, but there are numerous other resources that can easily be found online if you wish to explore it further.

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