It is said that the camera never lies, but according to new research published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, the camera not only lies, but those lies can lead to the creation of false memories.
In the study, which was led by Dario Sacchi of the University of Pagua and designed by veteran memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus, participants viewed photographs of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest in Beijing or the protest against the Iraq war which took place in Rome in 2003.
Some of the participants were presented with digitally altered photographs, while others were shown the unaltered, original images. It was found that manipulation of the photographs influenced the participants’ memories of the events very strongly.
For example, those participants shown the doctored photograph of the protest in Rome (top right), in which figures placed in the foreground give the impression of violence, rated the event as being significantly more violent and negative than it actually was. In their comments, they also provided false details, such as conflicts, damages, injuries and casualties that did not appear in the photos and were not documented at the event.
If misleading information can so easily distort previously encoded memories about past events, then memories of public events, and attitudes towards them, could be distorted even more drastically if doctored images are presented when the event is taking place (i.e. when memories of the event are being encoded).
The findings have important practical implications. They demonstrate clearly the power that the mass media has over how we perceive and remember public events, and the ease with which misinformation and propaganda can be used to manipulate public opinion. Finally, as the authors note, sophisticated software for altering images – and, therefore, for creating misinformation – is now readily available.
Sacchi, D. L. M., et al (2007). Changing history: doctored photographs affect memory for past public events. Appl. Cognit. Psychol. 21: 1005-1022. [Abstract]