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A Picture is Worth 1,000 Words, but What are the Words that We Choose?

phyllobates's picture


P=1,000*audience; (units= words)

(a picture is worth 1,000 words x the number of people viewing it)


       A recent post on the MSNBC photo blog caught my attention with its title “From U.S. to Paris in 2 minutes (with Northern Lights on the side)”.  The story featured a photographer, Nate Bolt, who on his way from San Francisco to Paris took over 2,400 pictures out of his plane window. Subsequently he made it into a 2-minute film. Bolt’s film gathered media attention over several photos in which he unexpectedly captured the aurora borealis. I, however, was intrigued by this notion by of creating a 2-minute flight film through the simple compilation of hundreds of photos.  While obviously movies are composed of thousands of pictures that are quickly transitioned, his project demonstrated the process in the most simplistic form.  The concept of single pictures evolving into a film seemed to connect well with looking at how stories change and develop through different mediums.  

       While in class we have mostly focused on the transition from a book to a movie, I found the transition from single pictures to a story, told by film, to be very interesting.  As I began to think about the creation of a story with pictures, I got stuck on the idea of a single picture and the story that it conveys.  I began to wonder how we derive a story from a snapshot or illustration and how this story evolves differently depending on who the individual telling the story is.  Additionally, to some extent I started to think about how an individuals characteristics and personality function as a selective pressure on the story that forms from a single image.

       A picture is worth a thousand words, but what are the specific words or stories that we choose?  While this may seem like an impossible question, perhaps surprisingly this has actually been a well-studied question, particularly in the field psychology.  In terms of psychological testing, projective tests are commonly employed as a means to gain insight into an individual’s personality and mindset.  Two of the more commonly encountered projective methods include the Rorschach test and the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT). In popular culture, mostly in TV shows or movies, you have probably seen one of these tests administered to patients or criminals who are being psychologically evaluated. In both tests the participant is shown a series of cards with images on it.  In the Rorschach test, also known as the inkblot test, the images are abstract and the subject is asked to identify what the image depicts.  More complex, and more applicable in addressing the question individual differences in picture perception and story telling, is the TAT.  First implemented in 1935, the TAT consists of set of 31 cards that depict ambiguous human situations (Thematic Apperception Test).  The subject being tested is essentially asked to create a story describing the event shown in the picture, what circumstances lead up the situation, and what will happen to the characters in the future.  Additionally, the participant is asked to describe how they feel about each picture (Thematic Apperception Test).  

        Ultimately, the TAT can provide information on a subject’s thought patterns, dominant drives, sentiments, attitude, goals, fears, quality of relationships, global view, self and other views or expectations, fantasies, and assumptions ( Murray ,Turk 2010 , Schultheiss 2008 , Thematic Apperception Test).  Typically TATs are used to in a clinical setting in order to determine certain aspects of an individual’s current psychological status, personality, autobiographical viewpoint, and therapeutic progress, as well as to select the best form of psychotherapy and to supplement the diagnosis for a mental disorder.  While both the Rorschach and the TAT were implemented long ago, surprisingly they still serve as fairly accurate measures for scoring the traits of an individual.

       The story an individual tells can be interpreted and then scored in a variety of ways, however, all methods of analysis seek to gain insight into the individual characteristics discussed above. The TAT can be interpreted either based on the unique factors of individual, keeping in mind their past experiences etc., or it can be scored from a more general standpoint by comparing the subject’s responses to normative cohort responses. If interpreting data based on the individual it is important to keep in mind differences amongst cultures, races, genders, ages, and social statuses.  Either way, specific aspects of the story are analyzed, and coded in a way to recognize certain traits.  

       One of the most recent methods of scoring is with the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count system (LIWC) (Turk, 2010).  LIWC analyzes the text by counting words that belong to several identified categories.  The first search category is major linguistic dimensions, in which unique words, words longer than six letters, pronouns etc. are identified.  The next search theme is for words related to time, space, or motion. LIWC analyzes the text for four of the main subsections of psychological constructs including emotional, cognitive, perceptual, and social phrases.  Lastly, words relating to personal concerns are identified; this includes categories like occupation, leisure activity financial, metaphysical issues, and physical states. From the story told and through this closer analysis certain themes become apparent, often reflecting inter and interpersonal issues the subject is struggling with.  (Turk, 2010)

       In applying these notions towards the general process of deriving a story from a picture, it is clear that every individual will create their own unique story.  Despite everyone beginning at the same starting point, different personal characteristics act as selective pressures on the unfolding story, favoring certain linguistic and semantic content.  Some stories may focus on the relationship between characters while others may focus on the internal thoughts of the main character.  Some stories may be focused on the present, while other stories may be told in the past tense or may be future oriented. While there are likely thematic overlaps, even when looking at the exact same picture infinite stories can be produced!

       The implications of these projective tests are not only interesting in terms of looking at how different stories evolve from one picture, but they also weigh heavily on the notion of an unbiased narrator. The TAT is based on the foundational concept that “the tendency of people to interpret an ambiguous human situation in conformity with their past experiences and present wants, and the tendency of those who write stories to do likewise” (Murray). The sole existence of the TAT demonstrates how important and reliable an individual's traits are in producing a story.  Going beyond a single image, every situation is colored by our characteristics. Our stories are really only a testament to these traits.  In the plague the initially unidentified narrator enthusiastically declares his story to be the unbiased version of the truth,

       “a narrator cannot take account of these differences of outlook. His business is only to say: ‘This is what happened,’ when he        knows that it actually did happen... and that there are thousands of eyewitnesses who can appraise in their hearts the truth          of what he writes.” (Camus, 6)

 While as readers we are required to trust him, as humans it should be clear that there is no single version of the truth.  In expanding this notion it must then be recognized that when it comes down to it, there is really no non-fiction, only fiction exists.  Even autobiographies or historical accounts are told from by some person, and despite the purest intentions their personal traits will cloud over their supposedly unbiased piece.

        Looking at the evolution of a story told about a single picture from a psychological perspective demonstrates the various personal factors that influence a story and its development. In going back to the first day of class we firmly established that science doesn’t find the truth.  Science can only help to rule out possible options and explanations.  Similarly, literature is unable to convey the truth, as it seems the human experience is actually truth-less.  Thus even an ‘unbiased narrator’ can only tell their version of the truth. Our individual personalities, characteristics, and general life experience hinders us for experiencing or perceiving the world in a unified way.  However, these various interpretations of the truth leave us with a pathway towards understanding each other on a clinical, and more importantly, on a personal level.




  • Camus, Albert. The Plague. New York: Vintage, 1948. Print.
  • Murray, Henry A., M.D. "Thematic Apperception Test." N.d.  . Web. 15 Apr. 2011. <>.
  • Schultheiss, Oliver C., Liening, Scott H., & Schad, Daniel. "The Reliability of a Picture Story Exercise of Implicit Motives: Estimates of Internal Consistency, Retest Reliability, and Ipsative Stability." Research in Personality 42 (2008): 1560-1571. Print.
  • Thematic Apperception Test." Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2011. <>.
  • Turk, Anne A., et al. "Social Narratives in Agenesis of the Corpus Callosum: Linguistic Analysis of the Thematic Apperception Test." Neuropsychologia 48 (2010): 43-50. Print.