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Pictures aid 'truthiness', study reveals

Tuesday 14 Aug 2012 12:36 p.m.

Stephen Colbert (Reuters)

Stephen Colbert (Reuters)

By Dan Satherley

If an article is accompanied by a picture, readers are more likely to believe what it says is true.

A new study examining the concept of 'truthiness' – the "feeling that something is true" – showed that regardless of whether claims made in an article were true or not, the presence of a "decorative photo" made people more likely to believe them.

The research, by Victoria University PhD student Eryn Newman and colleagues at the University of Victoria in Canada, was published this week in psychology journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

“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’,” says Ms Newman.

“We were really surprised by what we found.”

Test subjects were shown a phrase like “the liquid metal inside a thermometer is magnesium”, and asked if they believed it was true or not. If the claim was accompanied by a picture people were more likely to agree it was true, even if the picture didn't reveal anything.

“Decorative photos grab people’s attention," says study supervisor Prof Maryanne Garry of Victoria University.

“This research suggests that these photos might have unintended consequences, leading people to accept information because of their feelings rather than the facts.”

The idea of 'truthiness' was popularised by satirical US comedian Stephen Colbert in 2005.

The word existed before Colbert began using it, but it was very rare. The Oxford Dictionary defined it as "characterised by truth; truthful, true".

Out of character, Colbert defined 'truthiness' as: "What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.' It's not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true. There's not only an emotional quality, but there's a selfish quality."

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