What is it about?

We challenge the conventional view according to which a picture of a horse is recognized as a horse simply because it resembles one. Instead, we argue that people interpret images of objects as symbols—visual objects through which people communicate with each other. On this alternative view, a picture of a horse represents a horse because a horse-looking object is a straightforward way to communicate about horses. To find out whether photos are just recognized as objects or are interpreted as symbols, we investigated how people interpret photos of toys—small objects that often represent much larger objects. For instance, a toy zebra is a small object and a conventional symbol of a large animal. This dual nature of toys makes them very good candidates for teasing the two views apart. On the one hand, if people simply recognize photos, they should see a small object in the toy zebra photo. On the other, if they interpret photos symbolically, they would interpret the toy zebra photo as (a symbol for) a zebra. To get at people's spontaneous interpretation of images, we built on previous studies in which people were shown two photos of different sizes and asked to select which image is larger. People found the task harder when the sizes of items in the photos didn’t match their real-world knowledge. For instance, when shown a small photo of a zebra next to a large photo of a watermelon, people were slow to select the larger watermelon image. They could not ignore their knowledge that zebras are larger than watermelons in the real world. When confronted with toys, however, participants were slow when they saw a small photo of a toy zebra next to a large photo of a watermelon even though this pairing preserves the real-world size difference of the two objects: watermelons are larger than toy zebras. This indicates that people did not merely recognize objects in images. If they did, participants would have recognized the toy zebra for the small object it actually is. Moreover, these findings did not arise because people mistook the toys for the real entities the toys represented. When people had to choose between photos of a zebra and a toy zebra, they interpreted the toy zebra as a small object (and no longer as a zebra). Instead of locking onto a rigid interpretation, adults consider the entire display when figuring out what a photographed object is meant to depict: an image of a toy zebra is interpreted as a zebra when next to an image of a watermelon, but as a toy when next to an image of a zebra!

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Why is it important?

If you are shown a photo of a horse and asked what it is, you would likely say, “a horse”. But, of course, it isn’t a horse, and you would be aware of this: you cannot feed or ride the object (the photo) in your hand. Yet, when studying visual perception, researchers often take it for granted that people see a horse when they look at a photo of a horse. This may be a mistake. Our findings suggest that human adults go beyond object recognition when confronted with object images, that they interpret them as symbols—visual objects which stand for other entities—and that they decide what an image is a symbol of relative to the entire visual display.


While many cognitive psychologists would agree that pictures are representations of objects and scenes, they hardly consider the possibility that this fact contributes to their studies. Many times this is not relevant, but sometimes may be. While studying how infants understand screen-based depictions of events, we realized that this aspect of the experimental situation is under-appreciated and under-researched even beyond developmental research.

Barbu Revencu
Central European University

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This page is a summary of: Images of objects are interpreted as symbols: A case study of automatic size measurement., Journal of Experimental Psychology General, November 2022, American Psychological Association (APA), DOI: 10.1037/xge0001318.
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