More recently, a photograph surfaced of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's children, who each wore a shirt with one letter of their last name. The children mistakenly lined up spelling out “MONEY”, rather than “ROMNEY”. Or at least that's what the picture will have you believe. In reality, the children lined up properly, spelling their own last name, and someone later simply switched the letters on the image.
But like a balloon ride or Bugs Bunny, these fake images can have very real effects on memory. In 2010, the online magazine Slate ran an experiment showing readers a handful of political photographs. Some of them were of real events, while others were doctored. Readers were then asked whether or not they remembered those events happening. Nearly half of Slate's readers claimed they remembered the fake political events happening. And that's in an uncontrolled setting, where they could have easily cheated and looked up the answers. Many people are adamant that John Kerry and Jane Fonda protested together, simply because they saw that photograph.
Seeing these fake images goes even beyond altering our memory of events. It can actually change our behaviours too. One study convinced people that egg salad had made them sick in their childhood. Four months later those participants were less likely to want to eat egg salad, even though the memory that made them feel that way was entirely false.
Another study showed participants images of two different protests – some from the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square, others from 2003 anti-war protests in Rome. The researchers doctored some of the images to make the protests more crowded and violent than they really were. When asked about the events later, not only did the participants remember the protests being violent, but they also expressed more hesitance to attend a protest in the future. And when asked for comments about the events, people wrote about conflicts, damage to property and injuries from the police and participants that were never documented at the time of the event.
Whether or not these sorts of false images could radically change someone's mind on political issues has yet to be proven, says Steven Frenda, a memory researcher from the University of California in Irvine, who has a forthcoming paper examining the results of the Slate survey. But he thinks “yet” is the operative word. "I believe it probably is true,” he says, “but we don't have the evidence to say that." Researchers are still pushing the limits of just how far they can go with doctored photographs, Frenda says, and they’re planning some experiments to assess whether long-held political beliefs can be swayed by faked imagery.
Why we're fooled
Images are really good at fooling our memories for a number of reasons, Wade says. A big part of it is because people trust photographs. "We still think of them as frozen moments in time," she says, even though most people know that photographs can be, and often are, doctored. In fact, people trust photographs so much that they actually place more weight on information that is accompanied with an image, regardless of how related or useful that image is. If you show participants a statement, and an image that provides no proof of that statement, they are far more likely to find that statement true than if it had no image alongside it.
And there are certain things that make a fake image more believable and more likely to be imprinted on our memories. People are more liable to be persuaded by false images that add weight to their beliefs. So those who were already opposed to John Kerry were quick to buy into the image of him and Jane Fonda protesting the war. Democrats are more likely to remember the Romney/Money mix-up. The Slate study found that Republicans were more likely to remember Barrack Obama shaking hands with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while Democrats are more likely to remember that George Bush was on vacation with the baseball pitcher Roger Clemens during Hurricane Katrina, even though neither event really happened.