Home > Memory > False Memories in the News: Are Pictures Worth MORE Than 1,000 Words?

False Memories in the News: Are Pictures Worth MORE Than 1,000 Words?

Close your eyes and imagine every news story you’ve ever heard in your life. What do you picture? You probably remember the big events: 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, etc. The flashbulb memories; the ones you remember in perfect clarity to the point where you could even remember where you were and what you were doing when you found out about the event. You also remember these events in pictures, right? In all likelihood, you don’t remember the news anchor sitting there telling you about the day, or the words printed on a newspaper. You remember images of the event. Those are the ones that stick in your brain. Well what if those pictures cause people to falsely remember events in the news?

We say a picture is worth a thousand words, but is an image powerful enough to actually create false memories? Is it even more powerful than words alone? In a study entitled “Photographs cause false memories for the news,” done by Deryn Strange,  Maryanne Garry, Daniel M. Bernstein, and D. Stephen Lindsay, participants were tested to see if false memories are more prevalent when images are used in conjunction with words as opposed to words alone. They had participants look at ten individual newspaper headlines for four seconds each. The headlines either had or did not have pictures alongside the words. Also, each headline was of either a real news story or a fake one. After viewing a headline, the participants would rate on a scale from 1 to 5 how confident they were that they recognized the news story; 1 being he or she had never heard about it before and 5 being he or she remembered the specific moment when they learned of the event. After collecting the data, the researchers found out that pictures have a significant impact on memory. They found that when a picture was next to the headline, participants were much more likely to remember a false event. Now, some of you out there may be questioning this idea. Maybe participants were just afraid to say they didn’t remember something. However, participants were clearly comfortable reporting their lack of knowledge of a news story. On true events, participants were okay with saying they did not remember it at all. This shows that the data really does support the idea that a photograph can cause false memories because we know that participants weren’t just claiming to remember when they actually didn’t. This study clearly showed that the addition of photographs makes people more likely to remember false events.

This is incredibly relevant information for our day-to-day lives. Imagine a court case where eyewitness testimony decides the fate of an accused criminal. If that witness were to confuse events because they had seen a picture associated with a false event, they might create a false memory around it, accidently sending the person to prison, or conversely, setting a guilty man free. In a less dramatic scenario, this phenomenon can come into play in an individual’s life simply by distorting memories of events. Say you are proofreading a colleague’s research paper. They may have gotten some facts wrong, but if they added a picture that relates to the event they claim to have happened, you may believe it to be true and remember hearing about it beforehand. Suddenly, a mistake is left in the paper without anyone realizing it is incorrect. You may even falsely remember an event that The Onion wrote about! So now the question becomes how and why does this occur? Why are our memories so easily manipulated by something as simple as a picture? First for the how: According to this study, memories need a support system to make them personally believable. Pictures provide that support. As we search through our memories, we look for cues in our world that provide evidence for our memories to make sure they are accurate. Also, seeing a picture may be misattributed as fact. Photos provide a secondary pathway for a person to place a memory.

Now for the why. Photos would provide context for memories. When we see an image, we record it in our minds as that image. Images in our minds can be mental representations from the world or photographs. Either way, pictures from the world provide us with a more wholesome picture of memories. Pictures truly are worth MORE than a thousand words, as evidenced by the fact that they can make you remember something that never happened. Mind-blowing, I know… So next time you are reading the newspaper, be cognizant of the fact that you may be experiencing some mind manipulation, and try to remember that memory isn’t necessarily fact.

Strange, D., Gary, M., Bernstein, D. M., & Lindsay, D. S. (2010). Photographs cause false memories for the news. Acta Psychologica, 136, 90-94.

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  1. December 1st, 2013 at 03:54 | #1

    This moment I read the title of this blogpost I instantly thought about eyewitness testimony, even though those words weren’t included in it. We learned in class that eyewitness testimony is highly unreliable, and this article helps extend our knowledge as to why that might be. If the presence of a visual stimuli makes a person more likely to falsely remember something that didn’t happen, then it makes sense that witnessing a crime would make somebody confident in their ability to correctly identify a suspect, even if parts of their memory are highly distorted. It would also be interesting to see if this phenomema applied to the malluability to flashbulb memories that we discussed in class- would people be more confident in the accuracy of their recollection of an event if they watched it on the news, rather than hearing it on the radio? Studies like these have important implications for eyewitness testimony and historical recollections.

  2. December 2nd, 2013 at 18:25 | #2

    This post makes a lot of sense, a picture can be so easily brought up to mind than a sentence or description. Remembering a picture not only seems clearer in the mind but also way more accurate since it is easier to recall. This reminds me of the example that was used to explain collective false memory. Collective false memory is a memory that is shared, passed on and constructed by a group. When the whole country saw the news videos about 9-11, they falsely remembered that they were watching tv at the time it happened or were there when it occurred. Their memory of the event changed and felt like a salient event, but it was not an accurate account of what they were really doing when they heard about the plane crashes. Seeing pictures is like a flashbulb memory, it is very vivid and it is assumed that it is accurate. I think that it is very important now that so much of our lives can be seen in video and photograph form to be aware of what you remember and what you just see.

  3. December 3rd, 2013 at 23:50 | #3

    This post was really intriguing. Especially cause it is crazy to think how much power pictures can have on us. However, there is also an element that I can’t help but bring up – the power of media. The study was done through showing newspaper pictures. The context of it being on a newspaper might sway participants to believe it more than not. So, do you think that if there were just pictures without any information on where it was published, it would still have the same effect? Also, what kind of pictures were they? Did they have to do with accidents or celebrity news. I know that if I am shown celebrity pictures I would just say that yes I remember that story because all the celebrity stories are jumbled in my head and they all seem the same to me. So do you think the type of news could also make this result different?

  4. December 9th, 2013 at 15:06 | #4

    Jumana, you raise an important point regarding source credibility and the extent to which people might misattribute their memory – or lack thereof – differentially based on the context in which it is presented. This also relates more broadly to the “perils” of people (I’m thinking politicians, but anyone with an agenda) who cite “studies” or “research” and present one or two anecdotal pieces of evidence and whether they are more likely to be believed because of the “evidence” they are providing.

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