Memory Can Be Manipulated By Photos
…as much as perception is — the camera may not lie, but manipulated photos do according to new research into digitally altered photos and how they influence our memories and attitudes toward public events.
Top: Original image of Beijing event. Bottom: Doctored image of Beijing event. (Credit: Image courtesy of University of California – Irvine)
When presented with digitally altered images depicting the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest in Beijing and a 2003 anti-war protest in Rome, participants in a new study by American and Italian researchers recalled the events as being bigger and more violent than they really were, suggesting that viewing doctored photographs might affect people’s memories of past public events.
The study was designed by UC Irvine psychologist Elizabeth Loftus and conducted by University of Padua researchers Franca Agnoli and Dario Sacchi.
Internet photo hoaxes are well known, but reputable media outlets such as the LA Times and USA Today recently published digitally altered photos, and subsequently issued retractions and apologies. When media use digitally doctored photographs, they may ultimately change the way we recall history, Loftus said.
“It shows the power of anyone to tamper with people’s recollection, and it gives the media another reason to regulate such doctoring, besides ethical reasons,” Loftus said.
In the study, 299 participants aged 19-84 viewed either original or digitally altered images depicting two events – the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest and a 2003 anti-war protest in Rome – and then answered questions about the events, including the number of people they thought had been involved, the response of law enforcement authorities and the level of violence.
Researchers doctored the Beijing photo to show large crowds standing in the sidelines while a lone protester stood before a row of advancing Chinese military tanks, and the Rome protest photo was altered to show riot police and a menacing, masked protester among a crowd of demonstrators.
“It’s potentially a form of human engineering that could be applied to us against our knowledge and against our wishes and we ought to be vigilant about it,” Loftus said. “With the addition of a few little upsetting and arousing elements in the Rome protest photo, people remembered this peaceful protest as being more violent than it was, and as a society we have to figure how we can regulate this.”
Viewing the digitally altered images affected the way participants remembered the events, as well as their attitudes toward protests. Those who viewed the doctored photograph of the Rome protest recalled the demonstration as violent and negative, and also recalled more physical confrontation and property damage. Participants who viewed the doctored photos said they were less inclined to participate in future protests, according to the study.
“Any media that employ digitally doctored photographs will have a stronger effect than merely influencing our opinion — by tampering with our malleable memory, they may ultimately change the way we recall history,” says lead author Dario Sacchi.
Volume 21, Issue 8 , Pages 1005 – 1022
Special Issue: Themed Issue: On Cognition and the Media . Issue Edited by Deryn Strange, Maryanne Garry.
Published Online: 20 Nov 2007
Changing history: doctored photographs affect memory for past public events
Dario L. M. Sacchi 1, Franca Agnoli 1 *, Elizabeth F. Loftus
1University of Padua, Italy
2University of California, Irvine, USA email: Franca Agnoli (firstname.lastname@example.org)
*Correspondence to Franca Agnoli, University of Padova, Via Venezia 8, 35131 Padova, Italy.
This paper is based in part on an Undergraduate Thesis submitted to the University of Padova under the supervision of the second author.
We investigated how doctored photographs of past public events affect memory for those events. Italian participants viewed either original images or misleading digitally doctored images depicting the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest in Beijing and a 2003 protest in Rome against the war in Iraq, and they subsequently answered questions about those events. Viewing the doctored images affected the way participants remembered the events. Those who viewed the doctored photograph of the Beijing event estimated that a larger number of people participated in it. Those who viewed the doctored photograph of the Rome event rated the event as more violent and more negative, recalled more physical confrontation, damage to property, and injuries to demonstrators, and were less inclined to participate in future protests. Both younger and older adult participants were affected by the manipulation. Results indicate that doctored photographs of past public events can influence memory, attitudes and behavioural intentions. Copyright © 2007 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.see also:
Psychol Res. 2007 Aug 4; [Epub ahead of print]
University of California, Irvine, CA, USA.
In past research, we planted false memories for food related childhood events using a simple false feedback procedure. Some critics have worried that our findings may be due to demand characteristics. In the present studies, we developed a novel procedure designed to reduce the influence of demand characteristics by providing an alternate magnet for subjects’ natural suspicions. We used two separate levels of deception. In addition to giving subjects a typical untrue rationale for the study (i.e., normal deceptive cover story), we built in strong indicators (the “Red Herring”) that the study actually had another purpose. Later, we told subjects that we had deceived them, and asked what they believed the “real purpose” of the study was. We also interviewed a subset of subjects in depth in order to analyze their subjective experiences of the procedure and any relevant demand. Our Red Herring successfully tricked subjects, and left little worry that our false memory results were due to demand. This “double cross” technique may have widespread uses in psychological research that hopes to conceal its real hypotheses from experimental subjects.