Repetition breeds authenticity

Farhana Tabassum

The more you see an image, the less you think it is edited.

Images, marketers say, are “worth a thousand words”.  They communicate a lot of information fast, and they can be very persuasive.  When we process images, it is very tempting to see them as pure representations of reality, even if we know that pictures can be tampered with and that an arsenal of technologies is widely available to do so. 

When we see images, we act like what psychologists call ‘naïve realists’. At first, we believe them to be authentic, and only after some reflection may we realize that the depicted burger could not be that juicy, the lingerie model would not be that slender, and the politician must be older than he looks on the election poster.

In our research, we explore the role of repetition in shaping consumer belief. Because what happens when we see commercial images over and over again?

Nature rarely lies

To be able to live our lives, our brain has to interpret familiar sights as true. After all, we have to be confident that the house we arrive at after work is the same as the one we left in the morning, and the person greeting us at the doorstep is really our spouse.

The mental system connecting familiarity to truth works well because nature rarely lies. But the system also operates when we look at man-made images.  As a result, we can mistakenly interpret repetition-generated familiarity as a shortcut to authenticity or truthfulness of the images we see.

You can think of the effect as a perceptual illusion, one that is quite robust and hard to avoid even if we know it exists.

More exposure, more real

Through our research, we found that mere exposure to an image is enough to make it feel as more real or unedited.

In several studies, participants were shown a series of images of dining halls, living rooms and standard hotel rooms, all taken from commercial websites. For each image, they had to judge to what extent the image reflected reality (versus being edited).

In all cases, even when questions were formulated differently, the participants deemed the most repeatedly viewed images to be more authentic. Not even using the term ‘photoshopped’ created any suspicion in participants’ minds.

We pushed it even further by conducting a study in which we forewarned a random half of the participants that repeatedly seeing an image might make it feel more authentic.  It did not matter.  The repetition induced impression of image authenticity showed to be a very robust finding. 

A powerful instrument

Going forward, we will investigate how our findings can be related to political advertising and propaganda. We also need to test how sensitive the repetition effect is to images that are heavily retouched and more manipulated.

Still, our findings until now tell a gripping and important story: repeated images appear more authentic and less photoshopped in our minds.

The implications are both obvious and serious.

If repetition can increase truth and authenticity of even fake pictures, it may also help set unrealistic standards of how things should be or raise expectations of how they could be. These misconceptions might be relatively innocuous when they lead to unrealistic beliefs about immaculate hotel rooms, round red tomatoes, or deep blue swimming pools. 

Repeated exposure to picture manipulations might also be potentially damaging, like when they create unreachable ideals for what a human body should look like, or when they misrepresent the amount of popular support for a political leader or idea. 

Whether their intentions are good or bad, picture editing technology offers a powerful instrument for professional persuasion agents to determine how we see the world.  This is why we need to continue our research into the mechanisms and consequences of visual illusions of truth.


This article is written for the upcoming edition of the BI Marketing Magazine.

Hasher, L., Goldstein, D., & Toppino, T. (1977). Frequency and the conference of referential validity. Journal of verbal learning and verbal behavior, 16(1), 107-112.

Skurnik, I., Yoon, C., Park, D. C., & Schwarz, N. (2005). How warnings about false claims become recommendations. Journal of Consumer Research, 31(4), 713-724.

Published 28. September 2021

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