A picture is worth a thousand words?

  • Post category:Psychology / Social
  • Reading time:8 mins read
What message do you get? Remember some cultures read right to left

A picture is worth a thousand words“. I am sure every one has heard this phrase at one or other time of their life. I am not sure when I heard it first, but surely it was after when I had already learned what a picture or a drawing is :). It somehow felt like a universal truth. I just accepted it as my lesson that 2+2 = 4 or “a” for “apple”. No questions, no doubt. I am not sure if anyone else did question as to why and how it came to exist. I mean how was this evaluated? Why only thousand words?

There are different theories about the original source of the phrase. It seems it was made popular by advertising industry; like most of other things we know today. One interesting thing about it, based on Wikipedia , is that it shows if you want to make a point without anyone doubting it, make a reference to a distant, vague source. In this specific case, one guy wrote ” A picture is worth a thousand phrase. A Chinese proverb!” Today when we have access to internet, digital libraries, news etc. people still do not bother to make a simple google search. Not to write a thesis about it, but just to see if there is another version of the story. Now imagine during 1910-1930s. Who would go and check which Chinese guy wrote that. All that people would have known in those days that China is a big country and they had some really cool guys. So, people just took it on the “face” value.

Maybe marketing and advertising field brought this phrase to its current form, but I think it’s origin dates far back in time. I think it’s seeds were sown when the first cave drawing/painting was made. That person or community probably did not have a very complex language either to communicate. At that time, I think, it would have made perfect sense to paint a picture of what you saw, rather than a mix of sounds and hand gestures. A thousand words would really had been a limit of expression as well, even if they did not call it thousand. As humans improved their ability to replicate their visual image on stones, tree barks etc, they of course would have liked that idea more and more. Imagine, when a group of humans had just moved from one place to another due to some draught or heavy rains or group fights or any other natural reason. As the people settled in their cave, they started to explore their surrounding for food. One of those happened to see a completely new animal in the forest and came rushing back to the cave. With a crude language and gestures, he could have probably managed to say 4 legs, one big face, teeth, tail etc. But that would describe a lot of other animals too. But with ability to draw, it would have made their life simple.

What if a question is ” Shall I slap you?” or “Are you in pain”?

It was not just limited to drawing and pictures on stones. It was also how you looked to others in real life. How you look to a probable mate is big part of individual partner selection in a lot of species. Humans are no different. It was just that as the brains evolved, they managed to make these rituals even more complicated. Humans could put mud on the body, pierce their body parts, make some hats and dresses to create a live picture for the probable mating partner. Going a little bit into words we are moving from picture to image. In this case humans started to create an image for others, which apparently would be preferred than the original, natural state. This had such an influence on man-kind that it is probably one of the oldest and longest running ritual. However, earlier it was clear for a person that they were doing it for a reason, that is to be selected by probable mate or later to be appreciated by peers. However, now we have given extreme important to this “created image”. So much so that we have managed to convince ourselves that it is for ourselves and not for others or any acceptance or selection. Ask a girl spending hours in front of a mirror, if she is doing it just that some boy can notice her. Maybe she is trying to paint her lips to look different from the rest of the girls. If not for a mate, maybe she is trying to put her effort to be noticed in her own group of girls. I am sure most probable answer you will get is that she is doing it for herself, her self-confidence or something, that she does not care about others opinion and definitely not that broken that she needs an acceptance from somebody. But, yet she won’t drop a single layer of that powder from her face. This is how deep this image has taken root in us. And what do you think you will get a response from a boy spending hours in gym, working with heavy metal, sweating and never stop making poses in front of the mirror? He is of course not doing it for a girl. This is healthy way of life, just that in case of males there is high probability to find one who would say he is doing it to stand out in the crowd.

But, is this just about physical and visual images and pictures? I do not have any authority to talk about other species and their awareness of mental and role based images, but in humans it surely is present and one can notice it on daily basis. We have mental images for almost every scenario. A priest should have a certain way of life and talking style or food habits and so on. Similar is the strees for the lady who is going to walk on a ramp to be selected by some scrutinising eyes. You would like to keep your image as to how much you care about the planet and environment and go on lengths to save water, stop food wastage, be natural, be healthy, re-use and so on. We want to make sure that the moment a post of some famine in Africa post jumps out or a fish stuck in some plastic, we do not miss to like it or share it. When outside we can go extents to keep our mental images. Some people would take food from someone’s plate, if they see they will waste it. Of course it would be made sure that they make a point to mention that they do not like to waste food. Or some would go on talking about quality of coffee or wine they like to drink. On the other side the moment they are home, they do not know for how long some vegetables stayed in fridge, before they decided to throw them out. Or some would simply throw away because some flavor was missing, while others would fine the cheapest possible deal on their alcohol.

Why disruptive gets a thumbs up?

On a very simple and easier dimension of “a picture is worth 1000 words” is supposed to mean that a picture clarifies the point much more easily. However, one can find enough images that can leave you with more confusion than simple words. It gets even more confusion when you change cultures where certain symbols may have different meaning or language is different. We have spend so much time about keeping images perfect that we are less and less aware of the reality. For me one of the worst image is when I see a smile, which came on someone’s face just as an image! I hope the simple authentic smile does not get lost just to prove that a picture/image is better. I hope that one prefers to say more than 1000 words to be more clear than an inappropriate picture.

Keep Smiling


“Doctor,” a woman said as she rushed into Mulla Nasrudin’s house, “I want you to tell me frankly, exactly what is wrong with me.” Nasrudin looked her over from head to foot, then said, “Madam, I have three things to tell you. First, you are about fifty pounds overweight, Second, your looks would be improved if you took off several layers of rouge and lipstick. AND THIRD, I AM NOT THE DOCTOR. THE DOCTOR’S OFFICE IS ACROSS THE STREET.”