How Photographs Influence What People Believe
How Photographs Influence What People Believe
People have many ways that they examine information to decide whether it is factual. Talking to others, doing experiments, looking at pictures, reading, and doing research are just a few ways that people form ideas about the surrounding world. Most people are familiar with the phrase, “seeing is believing,” which suggests that visual confirmation is a good way to establish whether something is true or false. It is easy to imagine how this works, because using the evidence of what is seen in order to make decisions is an essential part of life for many people. It can be as simple as a cook looking at chicken in a skillet seeing that the chicken is a light brown color and deciding that it is true that the chicken is done cooking. It can be a little more complex, such as a person looking at photos of tourist sites in Egypt who decides that it is true that Egypt is a fantastic place. People rely so heavily on this form of evaluation that it may seem obvious or unimportant. Yet, the way images influence how people evaluate information can have far-reaching consequences. A recent study by psychology researchers from New Zealand and Canada found that the presence of a photograph influences people to believe that the information is true.
In Eryn Newman et al.’s study, “Nonprobative photographs (or words) inflate truthiness,” the researchers did several experiments to determine exactly how photographs influence people’s evaluation of information. They write, “When people evaluate claims, they often rely on what comedian Stephen Colbert calls ‘truthiness,’ or subjective feelings of truth” (Newman et al. 2012, p. 969). Truthiness is, as Colbert tells it, is “the truth that you feel in your gut regardless of what the facts support” (Colbert 2012). In other words, people rely on intuition about information that is presented to decide whether it is true or not.
Newman et. al decided to do a research study to understand how and why certain kinds of information, such as photographs, influence how people evaluate information. In Newman et al.’s experiments, participants were shown unfamiliar and familiar celebrity names; a photograph of the celebrity accompanied some of these names. Participants were asked to quickly respond with “true” or “false” to the statement, “This famous person is dead” or “This famous person is alive” (Newman et. al 2012, p. 969). What the researchers discovered from this experiment was when the celebrity was unfamiliar to participants, an accompanying photograph increased the chance that they would decide the statement was true, regardless of whether it was an “alive” or “dead” statement (Newman et. al 2012, p. 969).
The researchers did a second experiment in which only unfamiliar names were included, sometimes with and sometimes without photographs; this experiment showed the same results, that photographs increased the chance that participants said the statement was true (Newman et. al 2012, p. 973). A third experiment involved giving the participants a statement about things, with half of the statements accompanied by a photograph. For example, Newman et al. write, “The claim that ‘Macadamia nuts are in the same evolutionary family as peaches’ appeared with a photo of macadamia nuts’” (Newman et. al 2012, p. 973). The photos in this third experiment had the same results as the previous two experiments, with people tending to evaluate the statements with photographs as true especially when the statements were about things they were less familiar with (Newman et. al 2012, p. 973).
The researchers refer to this as a “truthiness effect,” which they define as “a category of phenomena” in which, when making quick judgments about the truth of a claim, people tend toward believing that the claim is true (Newman et. al 2012, p. 969, 972). Truthiness is subject to the influence of intuition, prejudices, general beliefs, emotional appeal, past experience, context, and expectations among other things (Newman et. al 2012, p. 969). Truthiness does not rely on facts. It is easy to see why human beings have developed a means to evaluate information, especially when dealing with unfamiliar situations. After all, when a situation is new to a person, he needs to rely on the data readily at hand to make quick decisions about what to do, especially if a situation is life-threatening. Imagine, for example, a newlywed couple is staying at a hotel, the new husband is eating room-service dinner, and he has an allergic reaction to something in the food. The hotel and the city are unfamiliar to the new wife. She has never had to call for emergency services before, but the new wife knows she can dial 911 and help will come. When on the phone with emergency services, they ask for her location, and from her past experience with hotels, she finds the address printed on some stationary in the desk drawer and her room number on the paper sleeve her room key card is stored in. There is no guarantee that any of the above things, such as an ambulance arriving after calling 911 or being able to find the location of the hotel on stationary in her room, would be true. However, by relying on past experience and expectations, the new wife is able to successfully get help for the new husband. Making an educated guess is using truthiness. The people participating in Newman et al.’s experiments were also using truthiness when making true or false statements about celebrities and trivia statements about things. They were making the best guess they could about unfamiliar things using the evidence that they felt they had at hand.
In the scenario of the newlyweds, it is easy to see why the new wife believed as she did concerning emergency services and her location. It is perhaps less easy to understand why the participants in Newman et al.’s study believed as they did, that statements accompanied by photographs were more often true. However, the research team did some analysis and investigation to try to figure out why including a photograph with a statement increases the statement’s “truthiness.” The simplest reason Newman et al. find for the reason why their experiment’s participants more often found statements with photographs to be true is because people find photographs to be credible. Therefore, photos create an “aura of plausibility” about statements such as “Louis Smith is alive” or “Bees prefer yellow flowers” even if the statements offered are false (2012, p. 971). “Photos are inherently credible,” the researchers write, “people often regard photos as evidence of reality . . . even when they distrust the source in which they appear (e.g., the National Enquirer)” (Newman et. al 2012, p. 972). Interestingly, other studies the researchers examined found that photographs or photorealistic images had a greater truthiness effect than other graphic representations such as bar graphs. The conclusion from this is that people believe that photographs are candid representations of reality, whereas a graph is something created by people for the express purpose of influencing opinion.
The ramifications of this experiment and its results are, perhaps, extensive. The authors give an example of how the same effect was observed in a different experiment. They write, “In a particularly worrisome example of [truthiness bias], students rated the scientific reasoning of a neuroscience article more favorable if the article included an image of the brain” (Newman et. al 2012, p. 971). It does not seem to matter if the picture of the brain was from the experimenter’s study related to the neuroscience article or not, or that the written content of the article was identical. The inclusion of a photorealistic image immediately made the article seem like a better article to the students.
This truth bias, or truthiness effect, could be used in both positive and negative ways. For example, using more photographic representations in education could help students learn more easily. Many people are familiar with children’s picture books, which pair a word with a picture of the thing the word represents, such as a picture of a cat above the word “cat.” On the other hand, this kind of early training also primes people to believe what they see in other places when a word, phrase, or name is accompanied by a photograph, regardless of the truth of the statement or the accuracy of the photograph.
Some areas in which photographs can have a questionable truthiness influence are mass media publications and social media. The mass media has a history of influencing the thoughts and opinions of people through magazines, newspapers, pamphlets, television news, and so forth. People are attracted to the emotional appeal of photographs, and it can be used by biased reporters to try to get the public to place itself in a particular side of a story. For example, if a child is murdered, showing a photograph of a suspect and stating “this man killed this child” would, according to the results of the Newman et al. study, influence many people to say it was a true statement. This would happen even though viewers had little to no information about the murder and it goes against the legal policy of “innocent until proven guilty.” This could make it more difficult for people to get fair trials.
For social media, the recent news about football star Manti Te’o being duped into a fake relationship through online dating offers a cautionary tale about buying into the truthiness of photographs when it comes to social media. People deceiving other people about their identity in order to have a false online relationship is called “catfishing;” the term comes from “a 2010 documentary about an online romance that turned out to be predicated on a fictitious identity” (Zimmer 2013). Although people are, for the most part, making fun of Te’o for his mistake, this sort of thing could and does happen to average or even intelligent people. It can be imagined how it begins. A man could be looking at profiles on a popular dating site, finding profile that is a good “match” according to the characteristics described in words on the woman’s page. However, there is no photograph. The man decides not to contact that woman, instead deciding to talk to someone who does have a picture in the profile. For the sake of argument, it could even be said that the photograph of the woman he decides to talk to is fake. He has made a quick decision about who to talk to based on the fact that one profile has a photograph and the other does not because that profile feels more “real” to him. The story of Te’o Manti’s deception and public humiliation serves as a reminder to anyone involved in social media that seeing is not always believing.
In spite of these cautionary tales, the fact remains that humans will still encounter unfamiliar things, situations, and people and need to make quick judgments about them. People must have ways to make decisions about information when it is unfamiliar, and will likely continue make similar conclusions regardless of the information provided in this study. However, Newman et al.’s experiment provides a reminder that although seeing feels like believing, a photo can provide a thousand false words as easily as it can provide a thousand true words.
Colbert, Stephen (9 Aug. 2012). Who's Honoring Me Now? - Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. The Colbert Report [Television series]. Retrieved from http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/417670/august-09-2012/who-s-honoring-me-now----psychonomic-bulletin---review
Newman, Eryn J., Garry, Maryanne, Bernstein, Daniel M., Kantner, Justin, & Lindsay, D. Stephen (7 Aug 2012). Nonprobative photographs (or words) inflate truthiness. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review 19, 969-974.
Zimmer, Ben (27 Jan. 2013). Catfish: How Manti Te’o’s imaginary romance got its name. The Boston Globe. Retrieved from http://bostonglobe.com/ideas/2013/01/27/catfish-how-manti-imaginary-romance-got-its-name/inqu9zV8RQ7j19BRGQkH7H/story.html