More on the Psychological Impact of the New Yorker Cover

In the August 1st, 2008 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Harvard psychologist Mahzarin R. Banaji wrote an excellent article entitled “The Science of Satire” about the failed attempt at political humor by The New Yorker on the cover of the July 21st 2008 edition. (See here)  She begins by quoting the artist Barry Blitt in his response to Huffington Post when asked if he regretted posting the article in retrospect. Blitt responds:

“Retrospect? Outcry? The magazine just came out 10 minutes ago, at least give me a few days to decide whether to regret it or not.”

Banaji makes clear in her next paragraph that she is not denying The New Yorker or Blitt’s First Amendment rights, merely pointing out their failure to understand

basic facts of information transmission that accompanied the reasoning behind the drawing.

In the same article, Banaji quotes the editor of the New Yorker, David Remnick defends the cover saying

“it’s a satire about the distortions and misconceptions and prejudices about Obama.”

She points out the flaw in this reasoning by using examples of other covers from the New Yorker that Remmick claims are equally as offending.

When the artist’s intention was to depict Cheney as the boss, he faithfully drew Cheney as the boss. That’s satire? When the artist’s intention was to depict the drowning of the administration, he sketched the drowning of the administration. Far out!

The difference that Banaji reveals and pokes fun at is that with other satirical comics, the cartoon depicts literally what

When presented with A and B in close spatial or temporal proximity, the mind naturally and effortlessly associates the two. Obama=Osama is an easy association to produce via simple transmogrification. Flag burning=unpatriotic=un-American=un-Christian=Muslim is child’s play for the cortex. 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.

With knowledge of the process that the mind uses to digest information, artists cannot blame their own ignorance for placing the association in the minds of Americans whose brains are quick to complete the equation of A=B by simple association.

Harvard psychologists have embarked on much research concerning this idea of implicit association. Check out the website for Project Implicit for more information.

(Note: This was prepared by Hannah and Amanda.)


  1. Rob

    Shouldn’t an account of the impact of the New Yorker cover include the kind of popular news media coverage it received? The kind of folks whose voting behavior might be affected by the Islamaphobia and racism mocked by the New Yorker cover are probably of the sort who watch Fox News and/or listen to AM radio. I watch and listen to neither of these, but I wonder if their coverage of the story didn’t have the salutary effect of disabusing its consumers — since it is scarcely imaginable how the story could be covered in the first place even in conservative meida without pointing out the status of the falsehoods in question.

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