What is it that makes those images beautifully adorned with Rumi quotes so darn shareable on social media websites like Facebook? When we see an image paired with words, do we really engage with the ideas being conveyed or do we just hit the “share” button because the words kind of sound good? Are we more likely to believe something is true simply because there’s a pretty picture in the background?
A group of researchers at Victoria University recently decided to investigate those questions through a set of rigorous scientific experiments, with the goal of learning whether the images people see every day—not just on social media, but also in pictures that accompany television and newspaper headlines —might produce an effect Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness.” Truthiness, according to Colbert, is the feeling that something is true — regardless of whether it actually is — based on a “gut feeling” or sense of intuition.
So here’s how they did it: In each experiment the researchers showed participants claims such as, “The liquid metal inside a thermometer is magnesium” (it’s actually mercury) and asked them to agree or disagree that each claim was true. Sometimes the claim appeared with a decorative photograph, and other times the claim just appeared as words. The results may surprise you. When the statement was paired with a pretty picture, participants were significantly more likely to say the words next to the photograph were true — even if the claim being made was pretty obviously false.
So basically what’s happening here is that we unconsciously take the picture — even if it depicts absolutely nothing related to the quote or claim being made — as evidence for truth. The researchers in this study said that their findings support past findings showing that images help people conjure up memories and information related to a claim more easily than if it appeared by itself. Those memories may make you feel like the idea being expressed is more true, but that initial gut feeling is often misleading. It’s truthiness. “Photos help people generate pseudo-evidence,” the researchers concluded. Rather than critically evaluate the claims being made, we’re more likely to trust our gut when there are images involved — even if it might lead us astray.
This research has major implications for both journalists and consumers of media, as it shows just how powerful the images you use in a story can be in manipulating your reader into believing your claim. It’s not just that images make a news story more engaging, they actually serve as persuasive tools to can unconsciously sway readers into believing a claim. And if the words that accompany the image come from some highly respected public figure or sound mildly scientific (like the image at left), it’s even more important to take a moment to pause and reflect on the truth — not truthiness — of the claim. Especially in the fast paced world of social media, gut feelings can be misleading.
Read the full study at SpringerLink