Mind in the Media: Bill Cosby and Separating Actors From Their Characters

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Showtime / Verywell / Ellen Lindner

Spoiler alert and trigger warning: This article contains spoilers for the new docuseries We Need to Talk About Cosby and references individuals convicted of sexual assault which might be upsetting to some readers.

In Showtime's insightful four-part docuseries We Need to Talk About Cosby, director W. Kamau Bell delves into the legacy of Bill Cosby, both as the beloved TV star of series like The Cosby Show and Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids and as the man who has been accused of sexual assault by dozens of women and found guilty for the offense in a court of law.

The documentary juxtaposes the rise of Cosby as "America's Dad" with a timeline of his crimes, while also recounting his charitable efforts and the special place he held in the hearts and minds of African Americans.

It's an unsettling but thoughtful portrait of a man many reevaluated when his numerous misdeeds came to light. But it's especially noteworthy for suggesting something uncomfortable: Cosby has both done good things, including creating widely embraced art, at the same time as he was doing some awful, unthinkable things. Which begs the question: Can you completely write him off as good or bad? Or should he be accepted as something in between?

With the rise of the #MeToo movement, the bad behavior of a number of powerful men in the entertainment industry has been uncovered, and each time fans of the celebrity react with either shock and sadness or denial and victim-blaming. But why is it so hard for us to condemn the awful things these individuals did while still acknowledging the positive cultural contributions of their characters?

Psychology has the answers, and in Finding Truth in Fiction, a book I wrote with Karen Dill-Shackleford, we explore why it's so easy for us to confuse celebrities with the roles they play (whether those roles consist of characters or the persona a celebrity presents to the public) and the consequences that brings when we learn something about a celebrity that doesn't fit with our perception of them.

Person Perception

When we first meet someone, anyone, whether through the media or in person, we automatically size them up. Person perception refers to the many cognitive processes that are at work when we do this, which include assessing a person based on their outward appearance and general demeanor as well as relying on context clues, past experience, and stereotypes to judge who they are. This process is largely unconscious, a product of the fact that we're social beings.

At the most basic level, we do this to determine if an individual is a threat, but it also helps us determine a person's intentions, what they may do, and if they're someone we can rely on. Of course, when it comes to actors or other celebrities that we meet through the media, we already know they're not a threat, but that doesn't stop us from engaging in this process. As a result, whether we've come across an actor playing a fictional character or a talk show host making a crowd laugh with glee, we're making judgments that may or may not be accurate about them.

When it comes to Bill Cosby, people who watched him as Cliff Huxtable on The Cosby Show saw a clean-cut professional with a successful medical practice who lived in an upper-middle class home while raising several well-adjusted kids. Moreover, he came across as warm, fun-loving, and unthreatening, the kind of spouse and father we'd all want to have. And as We Need to Talk About Cosby points out, this was a perception Cosby himself leaned into, reinforcing the idea that he and Cliff Huxtable were largely one and the same. As a result, our positive perceptions of Cliff became our positive perceptions of Cosby.

Fundamental Attribution Error

Throughout his career, whether through his stand-up routines, his TV shows, or his public appearances, Cosby created a consistent public persona that people came to rely on and recognize. Consequently, they formed one-sided or parasocial connections with him. In fact, this is something we naturally do with many of the people we spend time with through screens, including fictional characters and cartoons.

But even when we know someone is playing a fictional character, we still have a tendency to ascribe the character's behavior to the actor. This is because of the fundamental attribution error, the much-studied tendency for people to attribute people's behavior to their personality than to external factors.

In fact, research has shown that even though people know that actors are not the characters they play, they still tend to attribute a fictional character's onscreen behavior in a TV drama to the actor playing them instead of to the script that prescribed their behavior. And the tendency to make the fundamental attribution error in this situation is so ingrained that even when people have been shown the same actor playing two very different roles they claimed that they believed the last scene they viewed was representative of the actor's internal traits.

Given this, it's not surprising that seeing Cosby playing a friendly, funny, morally sound person on The Cosby Show led viewers to ascribe these same traits to him even though he was playing a role. And over the course of years of exposure to the persona he'd cultivated, Cosby became so well loved that many developed a parasocial attachment to him, which happens when a media consumer derives comfort and security from a media persona.

Sadly, on some level, Cosby was aware of this and used it to take advantage of the women he assaulted. Because of who he was, many of them already trusted him before they ever met him. So according to We Need to Talk About Cosby, when he offered them a pill that he said would relax them, many of them took it, believing that he had their best intentions at heart. Little did they know that the pill would knock them out, giving Cosby the opportunity to sexually assault them. It's a horrifying demonstration of how a celebrity can use a revered public persona to engage in criminal activity.

Cognitive Dissonance

Yet, all of this doesn't explain exactly why we have so much trouble reconciling our positive recollections of Cosby (or Chris Noth or Joss Whedon or Louis C.K. or Matt Lauer and so many more) with the revelation that he's also done unforgivable things. One of the reasons is that it's psychologically uncomfortable to hold two opposing thoughts in our head. But this experience, which is referred to as cognitive dissonance, is bound to happen when we learn that a celebrity we love has also done very bad things.

In order to alleviate our discomfort when we experience cognitive dissonance, we employ dissonance reduction strategies. These strategies include either changing one of our thoughts to reestablish consistency or to minimize the severity of the conflict. In the case of Bill Cosby this can mean we:

  • decide we no longer like Cosby,
  • deny that he's guilty of the things he's accused of,
  • conclude that people in positions of power often take advantage of their status to do bad things, or
  • decide that the accusations have been exaggerated

Many of these strategies can be seen at work in the subjects Bell interviews in We Need to Talk About Cosby, who range from experts to fans to people who worked with Cosby to some of his victims. Some dismiss him as a sexual predator, some admit they initially didn't believe the allegations against him and even blamed the victims for what happened, and others seem to be unable to acknowledge his crimes are as widespread as the allegations against him indicate.

The documentary elegantly suggests that Cosby can't be reduced to just his crimes, just his good deeds, or just the TV he made. Yet, in general, we have a hard time accepting this because many of us aren't high on something called tolerance for ambiguity. As a result, situations where there are no absolute answers make us uncomfortable. We want the certainty of knowing who's good or bad, without having to entertain ifs, ands, or maybes.

Moreover, the just-world theory suggests people want to believe that people get what they deserve. From this perspective, we believe that Cosby and people like him deserve the fame, wealth, and other accolades their success has brought them. If they have done terrible things, however, that means they haven't actually earned all the positive things they've accumulated, yet another idea that makes us psychologically uncomfortable to the point that we will employ strategies, such as blaming the victims, to make ourselves feel better.

While We Need To Talk About Cosby doesn't address the psychological processes that Americans, particularly African Americans, have engaged in following the accusations against Cosby, the documentary spotlights the complex cognitive and emotional consequences of learning something negative about a celebrity we respect, admire, and even love.

Sadly, given the ongoing revelations about famous people's bad behavior, Cosby is unlikely to be the last celebrity we'll find ourselves needing to reevaluate. When that happens, though, perhaps understanding the psychological processes behind our reactions will enable us to acknowledge that the positive things the celebrity did haven't been erased, even if we determine they're outweighed by the terrible things we now know about them.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Moskowitz GB, Gill MJ. Person perception. In: Reisberg D, ed. The Oxford Handbook Of Cognitive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press; 2013:918-942.

  2. Tal-Or N, Papirman Y. The Fundamental Attribution Error in Attributing Fictional Figures' Characteristics to the ActorsMedia Psychol. 2007;9(2):331-345. doi:10.1080/15213260701286049

  3. Stever GS. Processes of Audience Involvement. In: Stever GS, Giles DC, Cohen JD, Myers ME. Understanding Media Psychology. 1st ed. New York: Routledge; 2021:183-204.

By Cynthia Vinney, PhD
Cynthia Vinney, PhD is an expert in media psychology and a published scholar whose work has been published in peer-reviewed psychology journals.