Taking Photos Improves Certain Kinds of Memories and Weakens Others

The results have implications for consumers, educators, and business people. 


I lived in East Asia from 2009 to 2011. At that time, I visited five countries: China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and Thailand. As you can imagine, I took a ton of photos, the best of which were loaded to my social media pages, so that my friends and family could be a part of it, and see what I was seeing. But I always wondered if all those shots added to my enjoyment and deepened my memories, or by being preoccupied taking them, degraded my appreciation and recollection. A recent study out of The Wharton School of business has the answer. 

Professor Alix Barasch went through a similar line of questioning. “I did a Fulbright in Hong Kong and Macau,” she said during a recent phone interview. She wondered how picture taking influenced her experience and memories of it, and decided to investigate. Now an assistant professor of marketing at NYU’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business, she co-authored this study as part of her thesis at the University of Pennsylvania. Prof. Barasch told me she came into her PhD. through photos. As a consumer psychology expert, it’s a topic she’s been studying for the past five or six years.

Barasch started to think about the goals people had when taking pictures. Did they do it mainly to preserve personal memories or rather, to share their experiences with others? Although people feel rather strongly about how photo-taking affects them, she said their results were consistent with studies on visual memory. “Most people think photo-taking is super-distracting, that it always take them out of the moment,” she said.

Is photo-taking distracting or does it help you to remember an experience? Getty Images.

In actuality, taking photos can boost our memory for visual content, she and colleagues found. While taking a mental photo had a similar effect. The downside is that photo-takers remember less non-visual information. It’s a constant rule in biology and perhaps life, when you get an advantage somewhere, you’re taking away from someplace else. There’s an opportunity cost that comes with every characteristic or decision.

Prof. Barasch and colleagues found that you didn’t even need a physical camera or phone. Study participants who took “mental pictures,” remembered just as much as those who actually snapped off a few. And finally, participants who were allowed to take photos during an experiment remembered more of the visual environment, even things they didn’t personally shoot. Their results were published last August in the journal, Psychological Science.

The researchers conducted one field test and three lab experiments. The field test took part at the Penn Museum, specifically in the Etruscan exhibit. The Etruscans were an ancient Italian civilization thought to be the precursor to the Romans.

Taking photos on a trip can help you remember details about it. Getty Images.

297 volunteers took part in this study. Half were undergraduates at the university, the other people from the nearby community. Their median age was 20. They didn’t know anything about the experiment beforehand. Participants were given a short overview upon arrival and an iPod with an audio guide.

Half the group were asked to leave their phones with study authors. They’d get them back at the end. This was so they wouldn’t take photos. But nothing about photo taking was mentioned.

With the other group, they were told to take photos as they normally would. In the end, each participant filled out a survey modeled after those used in traditional memory studies. This was tailored to the artifacts participants had seen.

Some of the questions were visual ones, where they had to recognize some visual aspect. Others were auditory questions from something they had heard in the audio guide. Turns out, photo-takers had increased visual memory.

“They could identify an Etruscan jar or shield,” Barasch said. But this group found auditory questions much more difficult. On the flip side, those who couldn’t take photos were more likely to get the auditory questions and miss visual ones. “It’s just a shift in attention,” Barasch said.

“The act of taking a photo directs your energy towards visual information in your environment. That’s really important.” After all, everyone nowadays has an easy-to-use camera at their fingertips at all times. And think about all the photos you see in your social media feed every day. What impact is this having?

“It’s changing the way we observe the world,” she said. Although we gain a lot out of a more visually-centered world, it comes at a cost. What people say for instance could become less important than how they look. How is a more visually-centered world changing politics, social interactions, education, commerce, and other spheres? Truth is, we just don’t know yet.

Will your food taste as good, after you’ve taken a picture of it? Getty Images.

What we do know is you might not want to snap a photo of your food before you eat it, else you’re likely to concentrate more on how it looks than how it tastes. Restaurateurs meanwhile, may want to think twice about allowing photographs inside, even though things like Instagram can help them fill seats. In the long-term, their kitchen-based efforts could be dulled. If you’re at a concert, maybe put your phone away and enjoy the music. But if you’re seeing a sunset or the Grand Canyon, by all means snap away.

312 volunteers took part in the lab studies. This time, the subjects walked through a virtual art gallery and wore headphones, which provided an audio tour. Half of them had a camera button, giving them the ability to take photos or not. Those who did take them had the same results, improved visual memory at the cost of the auditory kind.

In the second lab study, they added a condition. Half of the photo takers (a quarter of volunteers overall) would have their photos erased at the end. The other half could keep them. Yet, they found no difference in what visual content photo-takers who couldn't keep their photos remembered. And in the last leg, the condition changed. Here, half of photo-takers had a camera button, while the other half were told to take “mental photos.” Even those in the latter group showed an advanced visual memories, but a poor auditory recollection of the tour.

“These findings have important implications for consumers, educators, and businesses,” Prof. Barasch said. Educators should think about how they present information and what they want students to walk away with. Businesses can concentrate on the impression they want customers to leave with. And, “Individuals may think twice now before pulling out the camera.” Now that we understand how picture taking affects us, we can better decide whether or not to snap off a photo, by how it’ll impact our experience and memory of it.

To learn more interesting things about memory, click here: 

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    Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

    "I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

    Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

    Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

    The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

    Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

    In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

    It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

    Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

    Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

    The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

    It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

    In their findings the authors state:

    "The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
    upholding First Amendment ideals.

    Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

    With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

    Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

    As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

    • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
    • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
    • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
    • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
    • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
    • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
    • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

    Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

    It's interesting to note the authors found that:

    "Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

    You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

    Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

    • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
    • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
    • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
    • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
    • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
    • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

    Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

    Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

    • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
    • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
    • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
    • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
    • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
    • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

    Civic discourse in the divisive age

    Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

    There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

    "In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
    dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
    the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
    These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
    putting our democracy in peril.

    Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
    immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
    become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
    Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
    The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
    re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
    building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

    We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

    This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.