Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

Symbolically speaking

November 11th, 2010

lest we forgetThere’s a reason politicians are photographed in front of flags. Yes, it’s corny and yes, it looks posed and obvious – but apparently we really do think of the person in that photo as more patriotic. Symbols have power.

I hadn’t realized that anyone had actually tested that statement until I found a 2007 study about our perceptions of people associated with symbols.

Donal Carlston and Lynda Mae presented university students with photographs of 30 unfamiliar people, each beside a graphic of a symbol (such as a flag, a rose, a pacifier, a briefcase or a gun – 24 different symbols in all). They looked at the photos/graphics for 8 seconds each, then did a short unrelated task. They were then presented with the same photographs without symbols and in a different order and asked to judge the people in them on various rating scales.

SymbolCompared with people who’d done the same thing without seeing any graphics (the control group), the students judged the people in the photographs as more likely to have the trait implied by the symbol: patriotism for the flag, romance for the rose, immaturity for the pacifier, and so on. There were no differences in the ratings for other kinds of trait, just the kind suggested by the symbol.

By doing a few other experiments, Carlston and Mae found that the same thing happened

  • whether the symbol was negative or positive in implication
  • whether the students believed the symbol had anything to do with the person in the photograph or was randomly chosen
  • even when the students couldn’t remember the symbols they’d seen.

recycle logoThe effect was stronger if the symbol was more memorable and if the person in the photograph was thought to have been deliberately associated with that symbol by other people. However, another study suggests that it will be weaker if the person in the photograph is thought to have ulterior motives for posing with that symbol.

tools for changing the world symbolObviously, this means that you or your group or organization shouldn’t be photographed with symbols that reflect something other than what you stand for. Don’t stand beside a swastika drawn on a wall to point out the problem of hate graffiti. On the other hand, associating yourself with a positive symbol really will affect how you’re perceived – as long as it’s not completely obvious that it’s a propaganda move.

My symbol is just above on the right, and I’d love to get feedback about whether it works. What does it say to you about me?

1 comment on 'Symbolically speaking'

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  1. Rob

    11 Nov 10 at 11:10 am

    What does it say to you about me?

    If were at the South Pole I’d have quite a headache.


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