New research indicates that people believe claims are true when a decorative photograph appears alongside the claim.
Scientists in New Zealand and Canada examined the phenomenon Stephen Colbert, comedian and news satirist, calls "truthiness"-the feeling that something is true.
"We wanted to examine how the kinds of photos people see every day-the ones that decorate newspaper or TV headlines, for example-might produce 'truthiness'. We were really surprised by what we found," said lead investigator Eryn J. Newman of Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.
In a series of four experiments in both New Zealand and Canada, Newman and colleagues showed people a series of claims such as, "The liquid metal inside a thermometer is magnesium" and asked them to agree or disagree that each claim was true.
In some cases, the claim appeared with a decorative photograph that didn't reveal if the claim was actually true-such as a thermometer. Other claims appeared alone. When a decorative photograph appeared with the claim, people were more likely to agree that the claim was true, regardless of whether it was actually true.
Across all the experiments, the findings fit with the idea that photos might help people conjure up images and ideas about the claim more easily than if the claim appeared by itself.
"We know that when it's easy for people to bring information to mind, it 'feels' right," said Newman.
The research has important implications for situations in which people encounter decorative photos, such as in the media or in education.
"Decorative photos grab people's attention. Our research suggests that these photos might have unintended consequences, leading people to accept information because of their feelings rather than the facts," Newman said.
The work has been published online in the Springer journal, Psychonomic Bulletin and Review.