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How Pictures Skew Our Judgment 141

An article at Ars summarizes a study into how simply seeing pictures can alter what we believe, even if the pictures don't provide any information about the topic at hand (abstract). Researchers asked true-or-false questions to a group of test subjects about whether a minor celebrity was still alive. When they provided a picture of the celebrity, more people evaluated the statement as 'true' than when no picture was provided. The researchers then switched the question, asking whether it was true or false that the celebrity was dead. Again, the subjects shown a picture were more likely to respond with 'true.' Experiments also showed this phenomenon wasn't limited to questions about people, but general knowledge as well. "The authors spend a bit of time discussing why this sort of truth bias might arise. In cases where we have rich information—a photo or detailed description of something—it's easier to pull additional information out of our memory. So, even if a photo doesn't tell us much about whether the person is alive, it does make it easier to retrieve relevant information on them—if they're wearing a suit in the photo, we might reason they're a political or financial figure, etc. When the information flows that readily, we're more likely to conclude that we're familiar with the question that's being posed, and will then tend to conclude it's true."
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How Pictures Skew Our Judgment

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  • by ackthpt ( 218170 ) on Friday August 10, 2012 @11:57AM (#40947017) Homepage Journal

    Class in college .. here's a photo. Everyone looks at it.

    There's a young man in a cap and gown with what appears to be a diploma. A smiling man is standing to one side, a smiling woman to the other and in the forground is a girl about 12 looking bored.

    Assertions, true or false: The father is proud of his son. The graduate's younger sister wants an ice cream. The mother is very happy.

    The first assertion is not necessarily true (therefore false), how do we know the smiling man is father, uncle, family friend, whatever?

    The second assertion is not necessarily true, how do you know she is related to the graduate? Where does it say anything about ice-cream? She could potentially be a young boy with long hair in girls clothing.

    The third assertion, mother? How do we know the woman has children? How do we know any of those present is related. It's also false.

    Quite fasciniating watching the light go on (perhaps for the first time in their lives) of my classmates. I challenged the assertions immediately because, being a rather literal programmer, I didn't see any statements of fact with the photo, so everything had to be assumptions (and who codes on assumptions? Ok.. lots of people do, that's why we have so many security problems, lack of useful feedback when things don't work and poor interfaces.)

    Now consider there are tens of millions of people who haven't even had an introduction to Critical Thinking and they are influenced by advertising, politcal speeches,much of the garbage on talk radio and those evil stinkers who talk young men and women into committing atrocities.

  • Filmmakers noticed early on that juxtaposing images had significant effects on perception, with the Kuleshov Effect [] being one famous demonstration.

  • Responding to self after tracking down a copy of the paper:

    One interesting thing they suggest is that, since in this study the "truthiness" effect happened in both directions, or even with unrelated images, previous studies showing that images produce a bias might need to be re-run with control images that are unrelated, i.e. placebo images.

    For example, the paper mentions a 2008 paper [] that found public trust in neuroscience findings was higher if accompanied by an image of a brain scan. That article speculated that "part of the fascination, and the credibility, of brain imaging research lies in the persuasive power of the actual brain images themselves". But the authors of this paper point out that perhaps it was just the presence of any image at all: what would happen if you re-represented the same articles, not with brain scans, but with just photos of the neuroscientists, or of the MRI machine? The authors hypothesize that you might get more people believing in the results in those cases, too, in which case it wouldn't actually be that the brain-scan images are serving any persuasive or evidentiary role in and of themselves.

  • by Petron ( 1771156 ) on Friday August 10, 2012 @01:35PM (#40948367)

    I really hate to bring this up, but I hope we can focus on the topic, and not skew off to debate the court/political side of things....

    Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman news coverage.

    When the news story first reported most of the newspapers and news agencies showed the picture of Trayvon in the red shirt and George in an orange jumper. There were other pictures available, so somebody chose these pictures.

    Trayvon's picture was of when he was 12 years old. The picture has a very happy looking kid, with a big smile. Eyes are bright, and the picture is very friendly, very innocent.
    George's picture is of a old mug shot, he was heavy, unshaven, the picture could be lightened or darkened (I've seen lighter and darker pictures, unsure what the original looked like). George is not smiling, unhappy, depressing.

    Now there is a headline "Man kills teen" and phrase "Man kills in self-defense"

    With the images provided we make assumptions.
    The Trayvon is 12 years old. False, Trayvon is 17.
    George is a convicted felon/criminal. False, George was arrested, but charges were dropped (yes I know there is some claims on this, but the charges were dropped.).
    George is white, Trayvon is black, this is racism. False, George is Hispanic. George is known for tutoring black children for free on the weekends, and was the only person to come to the defense of a homeless black man. The FBI investigated George and found no evidence that he is racist in any way.

    So, the images and headline imply the idea: "White racist convicted felon kills innocent happy black child."

    Other shading comes from the text - small example: Using "Trayvon" and "Zimmerman" for names. "Trayvon" is a very "black-sounding" name. Zimmerman is a common German name (Germans aren't known for any racists right?).

    And the damage is done. People have picked sides and have dug themselves in. Even now when we have up-to-date pictures (few are using the old red-shirt/orange jumper pics), the original images have set themselves in the minds of the people. What would have the story been like if the media outlets used the up-to-date pictures, rather than the kid/convict pictures?

If I have seen farther than others, it is because I was standing on the shoulders of giants. -- Isaac Newton