What do the academics say? The benefits of uninformative photos

Welcome to the latest in our occasional series highlighting interesting findings from academic research. Today – a little study from New Zealand about how even an uninformative photo helps convince people about the truth of a statement.

The British Psychological Society’s blog has details:

When we’re making a snap judgement about a fact, the mere presence of an accompanying photograph makes us more likely to think it’s true, even when the photo doesn’t provide any evidence one way or the other…

Ninety-two students in New Zealand and a further 48 in Canada looked at dozens of “true or alive statements” about celebrities, some of whom they’d heard of and some they hadn’t, such as “John Key is alive”. As fast as they could, without compromising their accuracy, the students had to say whether each statement was true or not. Crucially, half the statements were accompanied by a photo of the relevant celebrity and half weren’t. The take-home finding: the participants were more likely to say a statement was true if it was accompanied by a photo. This was the case for claims about celebrities being alive or dead, but the effect was stronger for unfamiliar celebrities.

However it may be that the effect is generated simply by having other information, whether in photo form or not:

Another, similar study was conducted but sometimes celebrity “dead or alive” statements were accompanied by simple verbal descriptions of the celebrities that weren’t helpful for judging the dead-or-alive claim. These verbal descriptions also had a “truthiness” effect, which suggests the truthy effect of photos isn’t unique to them, but must instead have to do with some kind of non-specific process that makes it easier for the mind to seek out confirmatory evidence for the claim that’s being judged.


Hat-tip: Simon McGrath

You can read the other posts in our What do the academics say? series here.

* Mark Pack is Party President and is the editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire.

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This entry was posted in What do the academics say?.


  • Every writer of a Focus or other leaflet should read this.

  • Richard Dean 7th Oct '12 - 12:24pm

    This reminds me of the infamous case of the battered mattress!

  • One thing that’s always missing from these stories is any hint of how we can teach and train people (of all ages) how not to think like this, and to come to conclusions based on better assessments of evidence and better reasoning. The stories always seem to conclude that bad reasoning and gullibility are in our bones, and there’s nothing we can do about it.
    Indeed, it seems like the advertisers and the politicians (if there is a difference between them), look at such studies and, instead of saying “this is terrible, let’s improve education so that people can make better decisions”, say “how can we use public gullibility to irrationally sway public opinion?”

  • Malcolm Todd 7th Oct '12 - 9:34pm

    @Richard — I’m intrigued, do tell us more!

  • Richard Dean 7th Oct '12 - 11:04pm

    Once upon a time there was a story about a battered mattress. The story might have been true, or it might have been false, nobody really knew, but what we do know is that the story was ashamed of itself. It was ashamed that it did not know whether it was true or false.

    After musing for some time, the story decided to go out into the big wide wonderful world and see if anyone believed it. Some did, some didn’t, but eventually it stumbled on a LibDem den of intrigue and vice, a constituency office, and the LibDem who seemed to be in charge said it didn’t matter, it was a useful story to have. This made the story feel a little better.

    Of course you never can tell who’s in charge in a LibDem den of vice, they all deny it, but there’s one thing you can be sure of, they all chatter like mad. So pretty soon the story was spreading from one LibDem den of vice to another, in constituency after constituency. Everyone marveled at how useful the story was, even though no-one could tell whether it was true or false.

    Well eventually the story arrived in or around Salford, where a couple of aspiring writers decided to write it down and put it on the first page of the Introduction of an important book. This made the story so proud of itself! It realized that it didn’t matter whether it was true or false. Henceforth, throwing off the shackles of convention, and jumping with joy, it decided it would simply Be!

  • This seems like a curious study as a photograph of a celebrity could be evidence of them being either dead or alive. For example if the photo is of a youngish celebrity and is recently taken (or looks recently taken from clothing/hairstyles etc) then might not people be skewed to thinking “well they were alive fairly recently so chances are they are still alive”.

  • Dennis Brown 8th Oct '12 - 9:17am

    I’m still trying to work out if this posting is supposed to be made more credible as a result of including a photograph of broccoli? I assume the one on the left must be “Chubby” broccoli?

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