An image might evoke short-term feelings, but a wall of text might change your mind for good.

Emotional images might evoke strong feelings, but they don’t change much in the long run. Image credits: Mihai Paraschiv.

Whether it’s through traditional means like newspapers or television, or through modern age social media, we’re exposed to a number of powerful images every single day. Sometimes, we might give in to the feelings evoked by these images. We might get sad when we see an image of a struggling immigrant family, or we might be happy when we learn of a rescued pup. But does that really change us in the long run?

According to communication scientist Tom Powell… not really.

Powell spent his PhD investigating to what extent images in print and digital news influence the way people, especially in a political context. He conducted several experiments in which he exposed participants to high-impact stories on emotional topics such as refugee crisis and military intervention. He intertwined powerful images with text, and at the end of it all asked participants to talk about their opinions and behaviors.

Unsurprisingly, the more striking photos he used, the more of an emotional response he received. But images don’t really change opinions and behaviors in the long run, Powell reports. That’s something which text fares much better at, he says.

‘We also discovered that viewing news about, say, the refugee crisis in a news article encouraged people to help refugees more than seeing it in video format. Again, our findings suggest that, in general, when people read the news they become more involved in it than if they watch it.’

This finding is indeed surprising because it goes against what we traditionally thought. Ask anyone from marketers to social scientists and they’ll tell you that images make the world go round when it comes to startling people. But if you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. An image comes to you at once, basically for free — it doesn’t require you to do anything, it doesn’t require any involvement, you just see it. Text, on the other hand, requires some involvement. You read it, you make a (small) effort. So it only seems logical that you’re more involved in something you put a bit of work in, even if it’s an extremely small amount.

‘My research shows that “powerful” images can draw people into the news, but citizens will not be completely won over by them – it is how images combine with words, and with the prior knowledge of the audience, that matters.’

While Powell was focused on political outcomes, his findings could be significant in a number of ways, especially when it comes to making people more involved in topics such as climate change or vaccination. It may sound like a no-brainer, but it’s words that might get the job done — not photos.

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