Photoshop Your Past

Altered photographs — a classic device of spies and repressive governments — can be used to manipulate perceptions of public events and shape people’s perceptions of history. What happens in the age of digital image editing, when even our personal photographs can be easily manipulated on a computer?

Adding two girls to a picture

New research shows that people’s perceptions of their own histories can be distorted through the use of doctored and even undoctored photographs. In the December 2005 Current Directions in Psychological Science, APS Fellow Maryanne Garry and Matthew P. Gerrie (Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand) review several recent studies on the use of photographs to generate false memories.

The research by Garry and colleagues follows the landmark “lost in the mall” studies by false-memory pioneer Elizabeth Loftus. A decade ago, Loftus and colleague Jacqueline Pickrell found that hearing a fake biographical narrative (e.g., about being lost in a mall as a child) induced a significant portion of participants to “remember” the event, even though it never happened.

The new research by the New Zealand team uses the same design, but with doctored family photographs instead of narratives. In one study, participants were shown digitally manipulated photographs of themselves as children taking a hot-air-balloon ride (i.e. cut-andpasted from real family photos and a “dummy” picture of a hot-air balloon). Fully half the participants “remembered” the experience, often giving rich details. (Family members independently confirmed that the participants had never taken such a ride.)

Undoctored photos, too, seem to help the credibility of, and memory for, false stories. In another study, participants read descriptions of two real childhood experiences as well as one fake one: putting Slime, the green goopy toy, in a teacher’s desk. Slightly fewer than half of those who just read the narrative “remembered” the Slime escapade, but the number exceeded 70 percent for participants who were additionally shown an undoctored photo of their school class.

To learn more about this research, see “When Photographs Create False Memories,” in the December 2005 issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science.

Observer Vol.19, No.1 January, 2006

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