Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

I'm going to add pictures so you'll believe me




     So if we take a picture together we're friends. Let's post it on Instagram so people will believe us. Dailymail clearly believed in it. And by putting it as a headline with that photo, they want you to believe it too. 

     British locals will be familiar with this website. It is also labelled as "trashy" and “sensationalist”; seems like it ticks all the boxes of what we may think as an unreliable news source. Yet, statistics says otherwise; it has a jaw dropping 100 million unique views per month. One may argue that they may view it for entertainment value. Sure enough, there’s more celebrity gossip than real local and international news in there. However, despite the knowledge that they are trash, many do return to the website and buy what they report and what they claim. Why?


     Just by using very basic news reporting technique – the use of pictures. We are visual animals and pictures are great. They give us evidence, reducing our cognitive effort to understand and receive information. If information is salient to us we’ll accept it, we believe in it. But if you take a closer look at each picture in relation to the claims, some just simply do not make sense.  Take for example:

Dailymail's more serious side: reporting on a scientific study

Does that picture tell you the difference between the two different diets? I guess not. 


What about America’s most trustworthy CNN?


I can see water but can anyone see the New York Stock Exchange in the picture? Viewers actually believed in it for a period of time before it was reported to be untrue.

     These visual images are crucial in presenting news that generate media profit. News reporters make use of what is called the truthiness effect, where photos are used to bias masses to believe their claims are true. A study by Newman et al. (2012) and was able to prove this effect where they found that non-probative photographs inflate truthiness. They had subjects to judge whether the trivia claims they were given to be true or false. Half of these trivia claims had photographs accompanying them. Also, these trivia statements were also either difficult or easy. This makes 4 conditions in their study:

a) Easy claims with photographs
b) Easy claims without photographs
c) Difficult claims with photographs
d) Difficult claims without photographs

     True enough, the results were consistent with their hypothesis that subjects were more likely to think a claim is true when presented with a photograph as compared to single statements. Moreover, the more difficult and unfamiliar the claim is, the higher the chances where people will think the statement is true. To prove this claim, the graph below will serve as visual evidence. 



Figure 1. Bias for easy and difficult trivia statements presented with or without a photograph.

     These photos are non-probative, so technically, they should not affect your judgements. So why does this occur? It is probably because pictures provide some form of “pseudoevidence”. We are unable to prove new information and the only evidence you seem to have is that relatively relevant picture in front of you. We fall for this confirmation bias and interpret this unknown information as true. Cognitively, we tend to believe things that are salient to us, which are essentially the photographs. This will also bolster our initial judgement that the claim is true.

     The power of visuals to convince can take place anywhere, even in legal judgements. Imagine what effect it could have on jurors who were presented with non-probative photographs of a fMRI image or a diagram of a brain in relation to a defendant’s medical condition. The juror might reduce damages to the victim or find the defendant innocent. Scary isn't it?

     Hopefully we don't find ourselves in courtrooms. But news are still the most relevant scenario we face where truthiness can occur. News are called news because they are new information to us. We can only trust them through what sources they give us at that moment in time, which are pictures. There is a reason why we are constantly reminded not to judge a book by it’s cover.  Or if you are going to venture into journalism, and you haven’t got hard evidence to prove your claim, use related photos. Chances are, your viewers will probably believe you. 


Reference: Newman, E. J., Garry, M., Bernstein, D. M., Kantner, J., & Lindsay, D. S. (2012). Nonprobative photographs (or words) inflate truthiness. Psychonomic bulletin & review, 19(5), 969–974

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