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Simple Jury Persuasion: How pictures infer “truthiness”

Wednesday, September 26, 2012
posted by Douglas Keene

The picture illustrating this post increases the likelihood you will see the post content as true. Enough said. But, you know we’ll say more. This is a fascinating addition to the visual evidence posts already on our blog.

We agree that a well-designed visual can raise comprehension for jurors in a complex trial. What this research says is that certain types of uninformative graphics can also increase the likelihood that the  written information accompanying the graphic is true. Or perhaps, truthier. After all, as Stephen Colbert is fond of saying, “You don’t look up truthiness in a book, you look it up in your gut.”

Researchers performed four different experiments with participants living in either New Zealand or Canada:

Experiment 1A and 1B: Showed participants pictures of celebrities (famous and otherwise) or no photo at all, along with statements that the celebrity was either alive or dead and participants were asked to judge the truth(iness) of this statement. When photos of the celebrity were included, the participants were more likely to assume the truth of the statement as to whether the person was alive or dead. The picture persuaded agreement.

Experiment 2: Showed participants the name of a celebrity (famous or otherwise) along with a photo (or not) and either no written description or a written description that was “nonprobative”–and always contained information on ethnicity, gender, hair, general occupation and a career-related concrete noun (e.g., “John Key is a white male, short brown straight hair, political leader, podium”). When the participants looked at these stimuli, they were equally likely to see truthiness when the stimuli had non-probative information as when there was a photo. In other words, there was not only a photo effect for truthiness of the alive or dead statement–when additional nonprobative information was added, the truthiness effect also occurred.

Experiment 3: Showed participants “nonprobative photos” (or no photo at all) along with accompanying text (which stated easy or difficult to know information). For example, a photo of a turtle accompanied a statement “Turtles are deaf” or a photo of macadamia nuts was shown next to a statement saying “Macadamia nuts are in the same evolutionary family as peaches”. Again, photos produced a truthiness effect. When participants saw an illustrative albeit nonprobative photo, they were more likely to endorse the truth of the statement.

The researchers suggest that when we are given nonprobative information (in the form of photos or written information) we are more likely to presume the truth of that “pseudoevidence” we can see with our eyes. They describe their findings as “lovely” with the following charmingly non-academic conclusion:

“We describe the photo effect as “lovely” for two reasons. First, as compared to the other “truthiness-inducing manipulations” with which we have experience, the effect of nonprobative photos seems to be quite robust. [snip] Second, we believe that it is just plain cool that the same manipulation that can lead people to think that an obscure celebrity is alive can also lead them to think that the celebrity is dead.”

We concur (it is just plain cool). Although we think it would be a hard sell to tell that high-tech attorney (or the judge or opposing counsel for that matter) that we can just stick any old (nonprobative) photo on the visual evidence prepared for the jury or skip the photo altogether and just say “The plaintiff is correct” or “The defendant is correct” and then add some nonprobative text and it would be just as persuasive as a carefully designed piece of visual evidence.

An additional component of this phenomenon, though, seems to be one of ‘context’. People feel more comfortable making decisions if they understand the circumstances surrounding the topic, even if the circumstances are nonprobative.

We see this in focus groups all the time, when jurors listen carefully to information gathered in discovery, and start asking questions. Clients are often struck by the range of things that jurors feel would be helpful for them to know. When the juror is asked in response to their query “How would it be helpful to you to know that?” they sometimes have an answer, but often they explain “I don’t know. I’m just curious.” They seek truthiness. The attorney wishes they had held the group before discovery was closed and reports were final. And the next time around, that attorney conducts the focus group earlier in the litigation.

This is intriguing research that suggests that we are perhaps not as complex in our judgments as we would like to believe. And, it gives us a way to understand jury conclusions as to truth(iness) that otherwise make absolutely no sense to us at all.
Newman EJ, Garry M, Bernstein DM, Kantner J, & Lindsay DS (2012). Nonprobative photographs (or words) inflate truthiness. Psychonomic bulletin & review PMID: 22869334

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