Obfuscation by Design: How Visual ComComplexity and Cognitive Bia.pdf (3.14 MB)

Obfuscation by Design: How Visual ComComplexity and Cognitive Bias Shape Our Understanding of Political Information

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posted on 01.05.2011, 00:00 by Adam Howard

There is a growing body of research on the ways in which people process and organize political information. However, these studies have focused almost exclusively on textual analysis at a time when people are turning to more visually oriented media in increasing numbers. While researchers have failed to account for this trend, political organizations have quickly adapted and begun to use visual media to their advantage for political messaging. This study examines people’s ability to perceive bias in visual representations of political information. Through a series of surveys and one-on-one interviews, I found that participants exhibited significant confirmation bias in their assessments of visual information. This effect was particularly strong in participants’ initial assessment of each example. The results reveal two potential paths to increasing awareness of bias in visual information. First, basic training in visual design could encourage more thorough examination of new information and result in increased awareness of bias. Second, illustrating the effects of confirmation bias could encourage viewers to pause and reassess their initial reaction to information, again resulting in increased awareness of bias. With these two hypotheses in mind, I have created an interactive guide that teaches basic elements of visual design, such as size and color, and then illustrates the effects of cognitive biases on assessment of information.




Degree Type

Master's Thesis



Degree Name

Master of Design (MDes)


Stacie Rohrbach