Emotion and Perception Lab

Is it fake? How meaning, attention, and emotions shape perceived authenticity of photojournalistic photographs. (2021-2025)

Funding: National Science Center in Poland

Principal investigator: MichaƂ Kuniecki


In the current project, we aim to examine how the impact of specific content categories present in the photojournalistic images, attention deployment, as well as emotional reaction evoked by their presentation guide decision process in the authenticity judgment statements regarding the “fakeness” or “realness” of photojournalistic images. Photojournalistic images shape our understanding of the socio-political world: they can convey a powerful message, playing a critical role in convincing readers about the truth value of the news release (Newman et al 2012) and even inducing false memories (Garry et al., 2007; Sacchi et al., 2007). That is because photojournalistic images are treated as proof, a self-contained piece of evidence that an event has happened (Garry et al., 2007). The importance of photographs in the news is supported by general human ability to extract meaning from pictorial information extremely fast (Bacon-Macé et al., 2005; Rousselet et al., 2005; Thorpe et al., 1996) even when presented outside of the focus of attention (Li et al., 2002; Peelen et al., 2009). Especially emotionally-loaded visual stimuli are promptly discriminated (Junghöfer et al. 2001; Schupp et al., 2004, Lähteenmäki et al 2015) even when concealed among distracting neutral stimuli (Calvo et al., 2006; Öhman et al., 2001). So far, little is known about the basis of authenticity judgment of photographic content. Studies have found non-content related features such as information source (Kasra et al., 2018) or viewers’ social media use, internet experience, and photo-editing skills (Shen et al., 2019). When it comes to direct image manipulation, our ability to discern unaltered images from the edited ones is very limited (Nightingale et al., 2017). A recent series of studies by Azevedo and colleagues (2020) has shown that image authenticity judgment can be predicted by emotional responses. The link between emotions and authenticity judgment has been shown also for textual fake news: those evoking strong negative emotions are judged as more credible (Fernández-López & Perea, 2020) and are spread more often (Wang et al., 2020). Our preliminary results also suggest that certain types of both emotional (e.g., injuries) and non-emotional (e.g., dynamic movement) content increase the perceived authenticity and that specific pattern of visual attention engagement plays a role in this process. In the current project, we aim to extend our initial findings. First, we will focus on image content using meaning maps, developed in our lab (Pilarczyk & Kuniecki 2015) combined with eye-tracking to determine what content categories present in the image promote its credence; and if attending to those content categories increases the chances of judging a given image as portraying a real event. Second, we will determine if the emotional response to the presented image, in particular, the level of physiological arousal and self-reported emotions, affects the authenticity judgment. Importantly, we will include physiological correlates of arousal and eye-tracking indices of spatial attention distribution in a single statistical model to assess their joint influence on the authenticity judgment. In a gaze-contingent experimental procedure, we will also investigate whether manipulating focus of attention on credence related content or away from it influences authenticity judgment of the whole image. Finally, using eye-tracking, we will compare the attention patterns and emotional reactions between participants holding opposite beliefs about the authenticity of the presented photographs to determine whether such beliefs could directly shape the attention engagement in the particular content. The results of this project would also have practical implications. Deeper knowledge regarding types of photographic content giving credence to misleading news might be useful for quick flagging of harmful information. To a more immediate effect, the results can be used to pick the right type of photographic content to elicit the perception of authenticity; for instance, in awareness-raising campaigns or during humanitarian crises.