Worth More than 1,000 Words

Why is it that we *need* to see the faces of names in the news?

Posted Jul 13, 2009

According to Yahoo's Buzz Index, the #4 searched-for web topic by Americans right now is Sahel Kazemi. "Kazemi" and "Sahel Kazemi" are also the #2 and #3 entries on the Google Images "Rising Search" index for the past 7 days, runners-up only to Paris Jackson, Michael's daughter. Clearly, people want to know about Kazemi and see what she looks like in the wake of the apparent murder-suicide that ended in her death and that of her boyfriend, former NFL star Steve McNair.

What is it about the news–especially bad news–that sends us scrambling to Google Images? I'll admit that I did the same thing when I first heard the news about McNair: I searched for a photo of Kazemi, as if seeing her face would somehow shed light on what drove her alleged behavior. Same when they arrested Philip Markoff, the alleged Craigslist Killer, and, for that matter, a variety of other news stories in the past several years in which an individual has shot almost instantly from unknown to notorious.

OK, so some of the popularity of Kazemi searches may reflect the same prurient motivations that lead "girls," "girl," "hot," and "Megan Fox" to reside in 4 of the top 10 image search spots. Many Googlers may just want to ogle the girlfriend of an NFL quarterback, or, even more crassly, compare her to that of McNair's now widowed wife. But such a blip in image search popularity isn't limited to the particulars of this case.

No, I'd argue that much of what drives these search results is our desire to actually see the faces that go with the names in the news. And this fascination is fueled by our chronic desire to understand what motivates human behavior—the same desire to ask why? that underlies our daily attribution processes. Somehow we're convinced that we're going to see something in these photos to explain why things went down as they did, to help us make sense of events that otherwise seem too unpredictable to wrap our heads around.

There can be a palpable sense of surprise when we don't find the clues we were looking for. Consider this headline from the NY Daily News: "Sahel Kazemi photos show image of seemingly happy young woman despite tragic end with Steve McNair." They seem surprised–as if one would've expected her Facebook page to be filled with photos of her looking depressed or even a little bit crazy.

In essence, our web searches reflect the same tendency we exhibit in life more generally, namely to try to judge people based on brief snapshots of behavior. It's the same habit that leads us to overestimate the importance of stable personality and underestimate the role of contextual factors in determining how others act. We assume that the actions we see reflect an underlying, consistent predisposition, instead of recognizing the potential power of situations to shape human behavior.

So we see a stranger–let's just call him Donald–lose his cool at the airport, berating another passenger for taking "his" spot in line. It's quick and easy for us to jump from seeing the impatient and aggressive behavior to concluding that this is an impatient and aggressive guy. Determining that some external, situational forces were at play is a less intuitive process. I can't see situational forces, but I can see Donald. And so I assume that he's responsible for the interaction I observe, that his predisposition led to all that came next.

How could I know that before I arrived on the scene, Donald was frustrated by his second flight cancellation of the day? Or that Donald's short fuse is uncharacteristic of him, a direct result of frustration over his latest hotel venture going bankrupt, his reality show being cancelled, or a snide remark made about his comb-over? We're often unaware of what has set the stage for the behavior we observe, and we overlook the fact that we're only encountering a person in a single, context-dependent manner.

Just as we tend to reduce other people to a snapshot of personality, so, too, do we seem to like having the physical snapshot to help deduce what kind of person we're reading about. I suppose there's some rational basis for this, as the human face does convey a tremendous amount of information that we consume as social perceivers during daily interaction. And recent research coming out of my own department at Tufts University indicates that you really can learn a lot about someone from perusing their Facebook page.

But do we really discover anything valuable when we head to Google Images after hearing the breaking news report? I doubt it, even though it doesn't stop us from trying. Sometimes these searches do make us feel better about ourselves, however: oh, look, the woman who left her infant in the car all day to tragic results is all disheveled and looks nothing like people I know–I was right, this would never happen to someone like me.

We're living in an era of hyperaccessible information and a 24-hour news cycle. We expect to be able to learn anything we want to about news stories whenever we want to. But our desire to see the faces of the people we read and hear about on the news also reflects something deeper, I think. In the end, I'd argue that it's driven by core human tendencies to understand what shapes the behavior of others, to try to make sense of the seemingly unpredictable, and to attempt reassure ourselves that bad things probably won't happen to us.

There is one related mystery I still can't make heads or tails of, however. Remember that list of Top 10 Google Image searches in the U.S.? #8 is "red." Does that reflect 1/3 of a patriotic homage on the week of July 4th or evidence that the deterioration of the American educational system now reaches as far as color identification?