A Thousand Words on How Taking Photos Affects Experiences

The picture is far from clear on how nonstop photography affects enjoyment and memories of those Kodak moments.

Robert Roy Britt
Feb 1, 2019 · 5 min read
This photo from a stairwell at a Cancun hotel helps me remember a rare and wonderful family vacation that involved some amazing snorkeling that I’ll never forget (sting rays and barracudas up close!) even though I have no photos of that experience.

Robyn LeBoeuf, professor of marketing at Washington University in St. Louis, said this about her colleague, Gia Nardini of the University of Denver: “She had gone to a wildlife preserve, but was so focused on getting pictures, she came home thinking, ‘Aw, I missed it.’”

The two got to thinking about that and teamed up with another researcher on some experiments, the results of which were published online this month by the journal Psychology & Marketing.

In one experiment, 152 undergrads watched a 10-minute video featuring “vivid footage of venomous snakes and jellyfish.” One group just watched, while others used an on-screen button to simulate taking pictures as they watched, as they might on a vacation. Those who just watched ranked the experience at 72.6 on a 100-point enjoyment scale. Those who were snapping photos gave it, on average, a 63.8.

“We get so focused on picture-taking, we miss the experience itself,” LeBoeuf says.

As you’ll see below, that may or may not be true. But I can relate.

After an exhilarating excursion to the top of a mountain, two of us were intent on capturing the moment. One of had an odd, prehistoric bulky thing called a DSLR camera.

Smelling the Roses

Long ago, I spent a year at Uppsala University in Sweden. Among many wonderful memories was biking over an old bridge across the frozen Fyris River on frigid winter mornings.

I have no pictures of that bridge. It was 1990. Film was precious.

But I have vivid memories of making friends stop on the bridge to just look around, take in the brilliant sheen of the ice or the twinkle of fresh snow from a low-arcing sun. One friend called me the stop-and-smell-the-roses guy. Nowadays I’m apt to ruin those Kodak moments, intent on capturing them rather than living them. The result: a lot of crappy pictures of metaphorical roses.

But which did I enjoy more? I’m not sure. Neither is science.

Enhancing Engagement

In another study involving multiple experiments and 2,000 people, done in 2016, participants had actual experiences, such as a bus tour or the always exciting excursion for a meal at a food court. Some were told to take photos, others not. Afterward, they were surveyed on their enjoyment and on their engagement with the experience.

“In almost every case, people who took photographs reported higher levels of enjoyment,” and they tended to report having been more engaged, the researchers reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Engagement drew people into the experiences, concluded the researchers, Kristin Diehl of the University of Southern California and Gal Zauberman at Yale.

However, one of the experiments produced opposite results.

Participants on a virtual safari watched lions attack a water buffalo. They kinda didn’t like seeing that. And those who photographed the scene reported lower enjoyment levels than the non-photographers.

There was another subtle twist in the results. In one experiment, Diehl and Zauberman found that taking “mental pictures” of an experience — focusing on specific aspects — led to higher enjoyment levels. Perhaps, the researchers speculate, active decisions about what to capture may play a role in whether picture-taking is worthwhile.

(This illustrates, by the way, how well-meaning experiments can yield wildly diverging conclusions, especially in the field of psychology.)

In digging through my Google Photo archives, I ran across this. If I hadn’t captured the moment my wife and son took a breather under an overhang on a trail outside Sedona, Arizona, I would have totally forgotten about that part of the experience.

Photographs & Memories

Somewhat separate from the question of enjoyment, there’s also some science on how photography affects memories. But again, it’s all over the ballpark.

In a 2013 study in the journal Psychological Science, researchers led undergrads on a museum tour, having them take note of certain specific objects either by just observing them or by taking photos. The next day, they tested the participants memories of those objects.

Those who had photographed the objects had dimmer memories of them. Study leader Linda Henkel of Fairfield University figured that our reliance on the camera has a negative effect on memory.

“When people rely on technology to remember for them — counting on the camera to record the event and thus not needing to attend to it fully themselves — it can have a negative impact on how well they remember their experiences,” Henkel explained. “People so often whip out their cameras almost mindlessly to capture a moment, to the point that they are missing what is happening right in front of them.”

Then four years later, Diehl and Zauberman, along with other colleagues, found something quite different.

They wondered how well people would remember things they had photographed, even if they never looked at the pictures. So they took 294 people on a museum tour of Etruscan artifacts (whatever those are; doesn’t matter). Some were instructed to take pictures. All of them listened to an audio guide. After the tour, they were all tested on what they’d seen and heard.

“Those who took photos visually recognized more of the objects compared with those who didn’t have a camera,” the scientists reported in Psychological Science. The photographers even had better recollections of things they saw but hadn’t photographed. Further, a separate experiment instructing participants to take “mental pictures” led to the same conclusion.

Just the intention to snap photos may have been behind the keener eyes, the researchers speculate.

Oh, and there was an interesting twist: The camera-wielding folks remembered less of what they’d heard on the tour. A follow-up virtual tour produced the same finding.

In the desert, we have ocotillos instead of roses. Not a terrible photo, but honestly it’s worth, maybe, 20 words.

Worth a Thousand Words?

What should we glean from all this? Clearly, taking pictures affects our experiences. How, well, that’s a question that can’t be fully answered in a thousand words (go ahead, count them, and don’t include the headline, subtitle or captions).

But two of the researchers mentioned above have some useful advice, especially for those of us whose digital photos are poorly organized, compared to the neatly albumized Polaroids in my Mom’s closet.

“Research has suggested that the sheer volume and lack of organization of digital photos for personal memories discourages many people from accessing and reminiscing about them,” Henkel figures. “In order to remember, we have to access and interact with the photos, rather than just amass them.”

And LeBoeuf, the Washington University researcher, suggests a moderated strategy to living vs. photographing: “Carve out moments to do one or the other,” she says.

LUMINATE

Exploring the human condition and ways to improve it.

Robert Roy Britt

Written by

Explainer of things, former editor-in-chief of Live Science and Space .com, author of the science thriller “5 Days to Landfall.”

LUMINATE

LUMINATE

Exploring the human condition and ways to improve it.

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