How Simple Visuals Can Distort Our Judgment and Inflate Truthiness

One thing that can easily sway or distort our decisions is the perceived fluency of information. Greater cognitive fluency leads to inflated truthiness, the feeling that something is true even if it has no objective basis.

Stephen Colbert famously coined the term “truthiness,” referring to how someone makes a decision by following the gut and intuitively knows that something is the truth regardless of facts or logic. One of Colbert’s favorite examples of truthiness was of course George W. Bush and his decision to invade Iraq, where the logic and the facts seemed nowhere as important as Bush’s gut feelings that the invasion was the right thing to do.

Stephen Colbert - Truthiness

Research shows that truthiness can be easily inflated with photographs and other visual elements. In general, the easier it is to imagine something, the more likely people are to think that it is true. So people are more likely to be convinced that something is true if it is also presented visually.

Photographs and the Inflated Truthiness

A 2012 study by Eryn Newman, Maryanne Garry, Daniel Bernstein, Justin Kantner, and Stephen Lindsay, tested if photographs could inflate the truthiness. Previous studies showed that people are more likely to think that a claim about a target is true if they can easily imagine it. So the researchers thought that photographs, because they provide raw materials for imagery, would likewise inflate the truthiness.

In their study, subjects had to rate whether various statements were true. For example, one claim said that John Key, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, is alive. Half of the participants saw this claim without Key’s photo and the other half saw it with the photo.

John Key

The results? Those who saw the photo were more likely to say that John Key is alive. No surprise, you might say, seeing someone’s photo might somehow hint that the person is alive. Yet, the same thing happened when the subjects rated the claim that John Key is dead—his photo made it more likely that people will think he is dead.

So it doesn’t matter what is being said—seeing a photo increases chances that we will accept it as the truth.


  • Eryn J. Newman, Maryanne Garry, Daniel M. Bernstein, Justin Kantner, and D. Stephen Lindsay, Non-Probative Photographs (or Words) Inflate Truthiness, Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 19, 969-974 (2012).