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Research: People easily fooled by pretty pictures
People are less likely to question the truth of written statements if they appear next to pictures, according to research by a Victoria University student.
Eryn Newman, a PhD student at Victoria’s School of Psychology, and her Canadian colleagues made the discovery while investigating the feeling that people get when something is true, or what American satirist Stephen Colbert calls ‘truthiness’.
“We wanted to examine how the kinds of photos people see everyday – the ones that decorate newspapers or TV headlines for example, might produce ‘truthiness,’” Newman said.
The research was conducted by presenting people a variety of claims about science, history, geography, and celebrities. Some people would be shown the statements next to a picture, while some were presented the claims in isolation. One statement said that “the liquid metal inside a thermometer is magnesium,” and sometimes it would appear next to a photo of a thermometer.
When this happened people were more likely to agree that the claim was true, regardless of whether it was.
“We know that when it’s easy for people to bring information to mind, it ‘feels’ right,” says Newman.
The findings demonstrated that visual aids change the process by which people reach a conclusions about statements, and Newman is currently conducting research into what causes this effect.
Victoria’s Professor Maryanne Garry and Newman’s research supervisor, says the study has important implications for situations where people are influenced by decorative photos, like in media or education.
“These photos might have unintended consequences, leading people to accept information because of their feelings rather than the facts.”
Newman says it is unknown what demographic is more likely are likely to believe an article that is accompanied by a photograph. But the people who are most susceptible are those with little general knowledge of the stories they are evaluating.
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