Picture Perfect

When we’re young we get picture books, and if we’re lucky someone will read the words until we have learned to read ourselves. As we get older, our books have fewer pictures and we have to more and more rely on our imagination to “picture” the scene.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t like pictures, but our stories have become too complicated to have many pictures. It is interesting how the words and pictures work on each other. Vandeberg et al have published a study in PLoS ONE exploring some of these aspects (1).

In some of their experiments they showed a picture briefly and then had their participants read a short story that mentioned the object. Here is the twist. In some of the stories the object was reported as being present and in others it was reported as being absent. After reading the story the participants were shown two versions of the image one being more transparent than the other. Note that the initial picture had a transparency of 50%.

In the case of the stories in which the objects were said to be present, the participants chose the more opaque picture as being most like the one seen before the story. Whereas when the story mentioned that the object was not present, the choices switched to the more transparent picture of the two shown at the end.

So it seems that mentioning that something is around in a story gives us a stronger image of that object than if the story mentions that it wasn’t there. This is a very interesting cognitive result. For example, if someone tells me that they saw a unicorn in my garden this morning, I will have a stronger picture of a unicorn eating my roses than if they had said that there was no unicorn in my garden.

I will be watching out for the technique in the fairy stories in the political advertisements this summer. If they tell me it’s true maybe I’ll see the utopia – picture perfect.

  1. http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0036154

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