Inflaming Images and Numbing Numbers: The Cognitive Science of Believing Things That Are Not True

david_myers
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Have you heard about the recent epidemic of shoplifting? Perhaps you’ve seen upsetting TV replays of flash-mob grabs in Nordstrom, Nike, or Macy’s stores? And perhaps you’ve read about stores abandoning their crime-prone urban locations or putting more goods under lock and key? Small wonder, given an Axios headline: “Shoplifting reaches crisis proportions.”

What a disturbing trend, which in October provoked Donald Trump to support shooting shoplifters, and in January New York Governor Kathy Hochul to propose increased tough-on-crime shoplifting penalties.

Image from Wikipedia CommonsImage from Wikipedia Commons

Is this just another example of a larger crime epidemic that each year since 2005 has been perceived by Americans (7 in 10 of whom have annually told Gallup that crime has increased in the past year)? “We have blood, death, and suffering on a scale once unthinkable,” declared Trump. On that much, Florida governor Ron DeSantis agrees: “Crime infests our cities.”

Yet the truth is the inverse of what most people are led to believe. Since the early 1990s, violent and property crime rates have fallen, by about half. The National Crime Victimization Survey confirms that we are much safer today. In the third quarter of 2023, violent crime fell by another 8 percent compared to a year earlier, and property crime dropped to its lowest level since 1961.

But the shoplifting epidemic! Actually, despite a retail theft uptick in a few cities, the national rate indexed by retail “shrinkage,” is essentially unchanged over time (except for a downtick during the home-bound pandemic). Shoplifting is a significant business expense, but not newly so.

As I documented in a prior essay, other examples of public misinformation abound:

  • In a time of near record-low unemployment, rising stock markets, and real wages outpacing declining inflation, half of Americans in 2023 perceived the economy as worsening.
  • In a time when the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has plummeted by two-thirds since 1990, 87 percent of folks surveyed across 24 countries believe global poverty has either stayed the same or gotten worse.
  • In a time when undocumented immigrants to the U.S. have a lower incarceration rate than U.S.-born Americans, politicians lament the influx of “vicious predators and bloodthirsty killers” and, Gallup has reported, “Americans are five times more likely to say immigrants make the [crime] situation worse rather than better.”

So why do most of us sometimes believe what just isn’t so? Why, for example, was I dismayed to learn (incorrectly, as it turns out) about the supposed shoplifting epidemic?

There’s a simple but powerful principle at work, note psychologists Eryn Newman (Australian National University) and Norbert Schwarz (University of Southern California): Visual images often overwhelm representative data. Their new paper, “Misinformed by Images: How Images Influence Perceptions of Truth and What Can Be Done About It,” adds fresh evidence that photos and videos (1) seize our attention, (2) get remembered, (3) touch our hearts, and (4) sway our judgments.

Attention. “Messages with images receive more attention and reach a wider audience,” they note. Images draw people’s “attention to a message that may be ignored without an image, they inflate message effects.” The news story of the mob invading the Los Angeles Nordstrom store would hardly have been noticed without the shocking images.

Memory. We have excellent memory for visual images. If you were shown more than 2000 faces for 3 to 10 seconds each, you could later, with 80+ percent accuracy, pick out those faces when they were paired with previously unseen faces. Memory aids help us remember a grocery list by associating its items with visual images. Even imagined events get well-remembered when vividly pictured, which misleads people sometimes to misrecall actually experiencing them.

Emotion. Images, more than statistics, speak to the heart. As Nathan DeWall, June Gruber, and I illustrate in Psychology, Fourteenth Edition,

A viral photo of a Syrian child lying dead on a beach had massive impact. Red Cross donations to Syrian refugees were 55 times greater in response to that photo than in response to “psychically numbing” statistics describing the hundreds of thousands of other refugee deaths (Slovic et al., 2017). Dramatic incidents make us gasp (“four deaths!”); probabilities we barely grasp (“per million”). It’s so easy to scare people with a horrific happening and then harder to unscare them with representative data.

Judgment. Thanks to the “availability heuristic” (our tendency to judge the likelihood of events by their recall availability), images power judgments. Place an image of a single violent act in a news story about an otherwise peaceful demonstration, and many readers will later recall mostly the violence. Moreover, the image may predispose how they interpret and remember complex or ambiguous information.

These image-empowering dynamics are not applied evenly to good and bad news. Good news seldom is news. The media—and our own threat-detection system—are attuned to bad-news images—of crime, violence, and economic malaise. When did your news feed last display planes landing safely, hardworking immigrants living peaceably, or honest shoppers paying for purchases?

So, for worse or for better, images—of shoplifters or violent immigrants attacking two New York City police officers, or of suffering children—come with the power to grab our attention, write themselves on our memories, touch our hearts, and bias our judgments. To see is to believe.

In an era awash in disturbing news images, social media images, and AI-generated fake images, critical thinkers will strive to self-consciously resist being overly swayed by what they see, remembering that—however awful or wonderful—the image is but one data point. They will, ideally, respond with, “Yes, that shoplifting mob was terrible—but how representative is it? Please, show me the data.”

(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com or check out his new essay collection, How Do We Know Ourselves?: Curiosities and Marvels of the Human Mind. Follow him on Twitter: @davidgmyers.)

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About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org).