True or False: Illustrations Make Information More Believable

By Sophie Bushwick | August 13, 2012 9:31 am

bias

“John Key is alive.” Quick, is this statement true or false? Unless you’re well versed in international politics (or a resident of New Zealand), you probably have no idea who John Key is, so you’ll have to rely on your gut feeling. And it turns out, according to a recent paper, that your gut is a sucker for pretty pictures. People are more likely to believe a statement is true when it is accompanied by a picture—any old picture—or verbal description.

In this study, research subjects had to answer a series of true or false questions on a computer, some claiming celebrities, both minor and major, were alive or dead, others providing trivia that did not involve people. When the participants had to use their intuition, as with the minor celebrities and unknown trivia, the presence of a picture on the screen would skew their answer towards “true.” The picture’s effect was still present, albeit less strong, with more familiar celebrities, whose life-or-death status would presumably be widely known.

Why did a visual or verbal description make a claim more believable? According to the researchers, it stimulates your brain to produce “pseudoevidence.” Let’s say you read that John Key is alive while looking at a photo of the man standing at a podium in front of a New Zealand flag. It doesn’t provide any information proving or disproving that he’s currently alive, but it does tell you that he’s a public figure from a country whose flag includes the Union Jack. As your brain easily recalls tidbits about national flags, your intuition thinks, “Hey, I’m remembering things! I must have read ‘John Key is alive’ before—so it’s probably true.”

Image of scales via Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain
MORE ABOUT: bias, instinct, intuition, truth
  • Chris

    There must have been hundreds of John Key’s throughout history. So without saying which John Key you are talking about both True and False would be correct.

  • blindboy

    Given that the paper is subscriber only you might at least give us some idea of the size of the effect and the scope of the test.

  • John Lerch

    Politicians have known for years that they can lie in just such a fashion. It’s interesting that I don’t recall George Orwell as having recognized this propaganda mechanism. I’m pretty sure also that it wasn’t one of the methods listed in The Propaganda game that Lorne Greene (Papa Ben Cartwright for those born too late to be in the greatest class of 1965) was touting in the 50’s/60’s.
    On a technical note: I wonder how well they corrected for our failing memories.

  • Mary Ann

    I totally agree with you! Pretty pictures do matter a lot, which is why I consider real estate agents, who don´t bother to provide their customers with lovely pictures of apartments and houses for rent (or for sale) more than just lazy. I actually consider them silly. Of course the majority of whatever we are as people, is nothing else but a collection of all sorts of emotions. All social scientists (people like me) would be able to confirm what I am claiming right now. And if you ever want people to find you trustworthy don´t forget to add a nice picture to your article or whatever it is, that you want to sell one way or the other. Commercials provide us with pictures by force, knowing that we will respond to them somehow. Don´t we all love that new Nikon commercial? Haven´t they shown us the most beautiful pictures? Sure, they really didn´t have to, as they are considered wonderful anyway, by me and most other people, but still. We all need pictures. And not just men, as old-fashioned people will tell you. The truth is, that women, who feel they can afford to date a handsome guy, as they are currently not broke, will also pick the better-looking guy. That´s the case, because we are all educated into believing in pretty pictures. Welcome to the 21st century. These days looks, or in other words all sorts of pictures, those in 2 and 3 dimensions, are (almost) everything! Why else would Courtney Cox bother to look that good? In all seriousness, if looks didn´t matter, she would put on 200 pounds and quote Shakespear and we´d all go: “you´re great, we love you!” There were days, in which looks mattered less. Ever heard of Rubens? Back then, people were impressed by politeness and brains. These days, big brains impress each other on 80beats e.g. and at lectures. And we may feel forced to conceal their witts at times when dating. And show off their pretty figures instead. Pretty pictures matter so very much don´t they? After all, lovely pictures are the one thing we do believe. What has happened to us?

  • Mary Ann

    I totally agree with you! Pretty pictures do matter a lot, which is why I consider real estate agents, who don´t bother to provide their customers with lovely pictures of apartments and houses for rent (or for sale) more than just lazy. I actually consider them silly. Of course the majority of whatever we are as people, is nothing else but a collection of all sorts of emotions. All social scientists (people like me) would be able to confirm what I am claiming right now. And if you ever want people to find you trustworthy don´t forget to add a nice picture to your article or whatever it is, that you want to sell one way or the other. Commercials provide us with pictures by force, knowing that we will respond to them somehow. Don´t we all love that new Nikon commercial? Haven´t they shown us the most beautiful pictures? Sure, they really didn´t have to, as they are considered wonderful anyway, by me and most other people, but still. We all need pictures. And not just men, as old-fashioned people will tell you. The truth is, that women, who feel they can afford to date a handsome guy, as they are currently not broke, will also pick the better-looking guy. That´s the case, because we are all educated into believing in pretty pictures. Welcome to the 21st century. These days looks, or in other words all sorts of pictures, those in 2 and 3 dimensions, are (almost) everything! Why else would Courtney Cox bother to look that good? In all seriousness, if looks didn´t matter, she would put on 200 pounds and quote Shakespear and we´d all go: “you´re great, we love you!” There were days, in which looks mattered less. Ever heard of Rubens? Back then, people were impressed by politeness and brains. These days, big brains impress each other on 80beats e.g. and at lectures. And we may feel forced to conceal our witts at times when dating. And show off our pretty figures instead. Pretty pictures matter so very much don´t they? After all, lovely pictures are the one thing we do believe. What has happened to us?

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