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This Story Has a Picture With It, So It Must Be True

A recent study found that statements accompanied by pictures are more likely to be taken as true than those without

Perhaps this is why picture books are so good at teaching kids. Image: OSDE

A picture might speak a thousand words, but those words might all be lies. And since there’s a picture there, you’re more likely to believe them. Or at least that’s what a recent study found: statements accompanied by pictures are more likely to be taken as true than those without.

The study showed students from New Zealand and Canada statements about celebrities—for example, ”John Key is alive.” Some of these celebrities the students had heard of, while others they hadn’t. Half of those statements had pictures to go along with them, while the other half did not. The students were then asked to decide as fast as they could whether the statement was true or not. Participants were more likely to think a statement was true if it had a picture with it. So for example the statement “John Key is alive” with a picture was far more “true” to participants than that same statement without.

This works not only with celebrities and the alive-or-not question. Another study gave students photos along with obscure facts, like “Macadamia nuts are in the same evolutionary family as peaches.” The researchers saw the same effect. If there was a picture, participants were more likely to think the statement was true. Research Digest explains why this might happen:

Why do photos have this truthiness effect? One possibility is that it’s something specifically to do with pictures. To check this, 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. Or, perhaps some feature of the verbal descriptions or photos is being taken as evidence for the attached claim. The researchers can’t be sure: “We speculate that nonprobative photos and verbal information help people generate pseudo evidence,” they said.

So before you believe what you read, try covering up the picture. Or maybe this whole post is a lie and I’m just trying to prove my point.

More from Smithsonian.com:

“Pictures for Everyone” Takes a Look Back
Five Things You Didn’t Know About Picture Frames

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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