#30in30 – Choose Pictures over Words

The 30 in 30 Briefing Series focuses on a new cognitive bias, fallacy or heuristic in every single publication. Through this Briefing we want to provide you with a rough overview of the cognitive phenomena most likely to occur in the legal profession. Today’s content: The Picture Superiority Effect.

The picture superiority effect implies that human memory is more likely to remember pictures rather than words. The American psychologist, Allan Paivio, discovered that our memory uses both verbal associations and visual imagery to represent information. Yet both kinds of information are processed in different areas of the brain. In decoding the information obtained, both modalities – verbal and visual – can add up to improve the memory. However, there are terms and ideas that cannot be expressed in pictures, and are therefore only encoded in verbal description, for example justice, culpability, or complex mathematics. Concrete words are also visually encoded, for example simple terms like tree, blood, or animal. Pictures are superior to verbal information in terms of memory.

The advantage of pictures over verbal information has large implications in advertisement and education. But this effect also has an influence on the judicial system of jury-trial courts. Because pictures cause a stronger memory, many attorneys and prosecutors use them rather than precise information to describe the course of events. Photographs of the crime scene are more lasting than abstract floor plans; a plastic pleading more present than a precise one about legal problems. Considering these facts, the picture superiority effect influences not only the finding of the judgment by the jury, but also the means which frame the process for the adversarial parties.

Now, how to avoid this issue? As often as possible, one can avoid this bias by simply being aware of it. Whether you decide to use this modality of human memory in your profession or you are confronted with images rather than with abstract statistics, try to keep in mind that in the end, pictures may be deceiving but figures are precise.