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Photos Implant ‘Memories’ of Fictional News Events

Participants in a study were far more likely to “remember” a fictional news event when a headline was accompanied by a tangentially relevant photograph.
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Remember that botched mission to rescue captured British soldiers in Baghdad during the Iraq War? And how Prime Minister Tony Blair subsequently rebuffed calls for his resignation?

If you answered no, it’s for a good reason: The event never happened. But if you answered yes, the photograph of a pensive Blair that accompanies this blog post may be partially to blame.

That’s the conclusion of a troubling new study about false memories, which was recently published in the journal Acta Psychologica. It reports a fake news headline is more likely to be accepted as factual if it is accompanied by a tangentially related photograph.

“We might think of the photo as providing a second route by which people can create mental products they later mistake for reality,” writes the research team, led by psychologist Deryn Strange of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Our results fit with the idea that photographs provide ‘cognitive scaffolding’ leading to the fluent [mental] processing we associate — accurately or inaccurately — with genuine experience.”

The researchers conducted a study featuring 98 undergraduates at two New Zealand universities. The students were shown a series of news headlines, some of which were accompanied by photographs while others were not. They were instructed to read the headline carefully, examine the photo when one was provided and then mark one of three responses: a) they remember learning about the event; b) they know it is true, but don’t specifically recall how they learned about it; or c) they don’t know that it’s true.

While the participants responded to 40 headlines, the researchers focused on 10, eight of which described actual events. The two fictional headlines were “Hussein survives assassination attempt in prison” and “Blair under fire for botched Baghdad rescue attempt.”

Of the eight accurate headlines for which responses were tallied, four stood alone, while four were accompanied by two photographs apiece. For instance, the headline "John Paul sainthood process begins" was accompanied by a shot of the pontiff praying and an aerial photo of his funeral.

The false stories were accompanied by photos half the time. Participants randomly selected for the "photo" condition saw two images of the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue and two shots of former Prime Minister Blair.

The researchers found that, for both the true and false headlines, the percentage of participants who claimed to remember the event was higher when the words were accompanied by a photograph. For the false headlines, this difference was quite substantial, suggesting the photographs effectively implanted a false memory in many of the students’ brains.

Strange and her colleagues attribute this phenomenon to the memory-making framework known as source monitoring.

“When people try to remember an event, true or false, they use what they know and believe about themselves and the world to run a mental stimulation of the event, seeing whether they can conjure up related thoughts and images that add up to a memory,” they write. Most of the time, this strategy works, but false memories can arise “when people run mental simulations of a false event, manufacturing thoughts and images, and mistake them for remembering.”

The photographs the students saw, which were relevant to the subject at hand but did not actually depict the events described, apparently stimulated such simulations.

These findings have disturbing implications for an increasingly image-driven media. “Just like the photo of Tony Blair, a photo paired with a scientific misconception, product claim or myth should help people ‘see’ related images, create them more easily, and misattribute them to a feeling of truth,” the researchers write.

So remember those recent reports that President Obama’s recent trip to Asia cost taxpayers $200 million per day? They were thoroughly debunked. But given that many of the original stories were accompanied by photos of the president getting off an airplane or greeting a foreign leader, it will be interesting to ask people in six months what they remember about the event. Chances are excellent that many will clearly recall the enormous price tag.