Doctored photos create false memories


Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research

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]


  1. #1 Neuro-conservative
    November 28, 2007

    Excellent point. As you are probably aware, the propagandistic techniques of “fauxtography” have been most systematically and effectively used by Jew-haters seeking the destruction of Israel. Examples abound, usually involving the staging of fake “martyrs,” non-existent “atrocities,” and the defilement of children’s corpses. Details are available from numerous sources, including here, here, and here (for starters). Unfortunately, media outlets such as AP, Reuters, and major television networks repeatedly participate (wittingly or unwittingly) in the fraud. It is sadly necessary for individual citizens to be ever-vigilant against this despicable manipulation.

  2. #2 gerald spezio
    November 29, 2007

    Mo, there is a blatant anti-Islam post by PZ Myers at Pharingula today concerning changing and/or adapting history to meet specific political goals.
    I think that PZ has been taken big time by the Zionist propaganda machine.

  3. #3 carolyn13
    November 29, 2007

    This is darn scary, though of course, as an American progressive, I already knew it.

  4. #4 Keely
    November 29, 2007

    There are many suggestions as to how the government can control us, and how it seeks to take us over… In fact my roommate today was just telling me about Zeitgeist the movie (can be easily googled), which suggests other methods by which we as a population may be ‘watched over’ and controlled.

    This sentiment is also expressed by the old British parliament guy in Micheal Moore’s ‘Sicko’. However, his comments suggest specific strategies for a government to try and exert control over its population, and he then points out there is some similarities of these methods in the American government.

    I have to say, this sentiment of how big brother (U.S. government) is attempting to watch over our every move and control us is becoming more and more prominent. This is something to be objectively looked at, I think. Perhaps I am merely only becoming more aware of it, where I wasn’t before, however I am apt to think that it has become more prominent with the governance of Bush. Conspiracies abound with this man and his government, especially after 9/11.

    Would this feeling be less of an issue with a more progressive, more science based president, or is our psychology of technology, or the ‘irobot’ kind of effect (as I want to call it) a bigger issue than we all thought? How distressed are we by technology and the ways it can deceive us and control us? Because I am noticing more and more a sort of panic about it, and especially a panic of this control being in the right hands, and I think it is becoming clear to the American public that Bush’s hands are all wrong.

    Does the sentiment I am trying to express make sense here? Perhaps this is something you can maybe explore in another post? I would be interested in your views on such a subject, especially in a more cohesive and informed manner than mine.

  5. #5 brtkrbzhnv
    November 30, 2007

    This is somewhat similar to what happened during the EU summit in Gothenburg in 2001. A police officer shot a protester, and video the police had tampered with by adding audio to to make it seem like a more threatening situation was broadcast by the media (and, even more scandalously, used in the trial against the police officer), and overall, the media reported much more on violence by protesters than police wrongdoings. That less biased information became available later on does not seem to have changed many people’s minds on whether police acted appropriately or not or whom to blame for the violence.

  6. #6 Kathleen Thomas
    November 30, 2007

    I’m amazed that you are amazed. This scenario has been filmed since the 1920’s. The general public has the ability to be encoded with or without images, even when the facts have been made clear, simply by the expression of a bias by a member of the media — as shown in previous elections. You may recall that both Gore and Bush were sons of long-time politicians, and that Gore had flunked out of college – or maybe it was just a religious seminary, I don’t really recall, while Bush had graduated from 2 – but the media painted Bush as “dumb” and riding on his father’s political coattails – and that’s the way he is perceived. At one time, the media reported news and facts, but today they are an entertainment industry. And we have to know what to expect when the head of a studio excuses their deliberately falsifying a story by saying that they so strongly believed in their story that they felt it was ok to distort and hide some of the evidence disproving it.

  7. #7 Greg Laden
    November 30, 2007

    Hey, where’s your “Blogging on Peer Reviewed Research” Button???

  8. #8 Brian
    November 30, 2007


    Silly me, I thought I perceived Bush as dumb because he said stupid things and made bad decisions. All the time, it was the media!

    Cry me the biggest river, and I’ll play you the smallest fiddle. Gore was portrayed as the biggest liar in history by the media (“invented the internet”), and Kerry the “flip flopper” was under constant attack. The media likes a controversy, regardless of it’s political color.

    Or you can go back to your cozy assumption that all the media wants is a democratic president. That’d explain why there’s so little coverage of the animosity between Clinton and Obama, right? Oh.

  9. #9 g
    November 30, 2007

    Kathleen, Gore doesn’t appear to have flunked out of anywhere. He graduated from Harvard, served in the military in Vietnam, did a year of religious studies at Vanderbilt, switched into the law school there, and then dropped out to run for Congress (he won).

    So far as I can tell from his academic record, he was a bit cleverer and a bit lazier than Bush. Similar grades.

    If Gore is portrayed as smart and Bush as dumb, I think that’s as much to do with how they’ve chosen to portray themselves. Bush plays the part of the down-to-earth ordinary guy who don’t speak English too good. Gore plays the part of the intellectual knowitall. Neither is a terribly accurate reflection of reality.

  10. #10 Hariman
    November 30, 2007

    Images can lie, and so can texts. The most false, influential, and vile deception in the modern era is not an image but a text: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In public commentary today, however, images are routinely blamed for problems endemic to all representation. It’s fine to caution against visual manipulation, but don’t let the selection and framing of verbal reports off the hook. Indeed, many people today are likely to be more skeptical of images that texts because of the widespread familiarity with Photoshop.

    Perhaps the political problem is not how people are deceived, but how they avoid the truth. In the US, whether you look at war, health insurance, whatever, bad things are happening right in front of our faces. The key deficits might be not knowledge but political will, imagination, participation, and leadership.

  11. #11 g
    November 30, 2007

    Excuse me; I was inaccurate; it looks like Gore didn’t complete several of his divinity courses at Vanderbilt and therefore failed them. Whether that means he “flunked out”, I’m not sure; Vanderbilt let him carry on at law school, and law isn’t generally reckoned to be an easy option for those unable to face the intellectual rigours of divinity :-).

  12. #12 DEFJAM
    November 30, 2007

    I am disturbed that more and more people have a tendency to believe that control and misinformation can only come from an organized authoritarian source such as our govt, and not from cultural manifestations with no clear malicious intent. At the same time, not questioning the integrity of propaganda of a different sort/aim such as Zeitgeist, with its loose interpretation of “facts” and “truth”, and its manipulative methods for skewing public understanding/opinion of the “truth”, is a dire situation indeed.

    Great post, hopefully people can analyze the subject with an objective mind without defining a morality based in fears of governmental control or vice/versa.

  13. #13 Alex
    December 2, 2007

    I’m totally puzzled by the photo at the top. The white arrow doesn’t seem to be pointing to anything in particular.

  14. #14 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    December 2, 2007

    In addition to the implications for a “1984” style manipulation by governments I was struck by the relationship has to the study of eyewitness testimony in courts of law.

    And specifically, I refer to cases of sexual abuse in which false memories are implanted in children when little or no physical evidence exists.

  15. #15 Mo
    December 2, 2007

    Alex – the arrow only points from the original to the altered photo. Look carefully at the altered one and you’ll see that a number of figures have been added into the foreground – 3 armed guards at the sides, and someone wearing a gas mask and a hooded figure near the middle.

  16. #16 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    December 2, 2007

    In addition to the implications for a “1984” style manipulation by governments I was struck by the relationship has to the study of eyewitness testimony in courts of law.

    And specifically, I refer to cases of sexual abuse in which false memories are implanted in children when little or no physical evidence exists.

  17. #17 Caledonian
    December 2, 2007

    We often confront the unreliability of our memories, while photographs have an (undeserved) reputation for being veridical. Confronted with an image that suggested violence taking place in an event I witnessed in the distant past, I would probably conclude myself that my memory was in error and adjust my recollections appropriately.

  18. #18 S.J.
    December 5, 2007

    It is a shame that scientific findings are often misused for political reasons.

  19. #19 john
    January 9, 2008

    I’m totally puzzled by the photo at the top. The white arrow doesn’t seem to be pointing to anything in particular.

  20. #20 Lily
    February 8, 2009

    Apples and oranges, Mr. Haubrich! This study refers to tweaking narrative memories known to exist–that is, of the people watching televised footage of Tiananmen Square. The creation of traumatic memories whole cloth would need to be studied separately, and I do not know of very much research that has been done in that area. ( is the only such study I have read so far…)

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