The last time I went to the Thames to enjoy London’s New Year’s Eve firework display, I ended up watching it on a little screen. Everyone around me was holding up their phones, taking pictures of the pretty light-filled sky, obscuring my view in the process. I scoffed privately at their inanity – why couldn’t they just enjoy the moment rather than trying to capture it in a megabyte?
My scorn might have been misplaced. Based on their series of nine studies published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a team of US psychologists has concluded that taking photographs enhances our enjoyment of events, likely because it increases our sense of immersion.
Led by Kristin Diehl at the University of Southern California, the research featured several field studies, including people on a city bus tour, diners at a farmers market and visitors to a museum. In each case, half the participants were told they couldn’t take photos, the others that they could. Afterwards, they rated their enjoyment of the experiences, and the consistent finding was that people who took photos enjoyed themselves more and felt more immersed in the experience. The museum study also involved the participants wearing eye tracking equipment and this showed that the photo-takers spent more time paying attention to meaningful exhibits.
Other studies were conducted in the lab and aimed to simulate the experience of taking photos at a live event, or not. For example, participants watched a first-person perspective video of being on a tour of London, and half of them could take “photos” by making a mouse click, whereas the others didn’t have this opportunity.
The benefits of taking photographs to enjoyment and immersion were replicated in these lab conditions, unless the process was made more distracting, for example through giving participants the chance to delete photos they’d taken. These simulations also showed that thinking about when one would hypothetically take photos, but not actually taking them, also boosted enjoyment – again, likely because of the mindful mindset inspired by thinking this way.
There were some limits to the boon of photography. When the experience was negative (in this case, being on a gory safari), then taking photos made things worse. Also, if the experience was very interactive – a hands-on arts and crafts challenge – the opportunity to take photos added nothing to the enjoyment, but neither was it detrimental.
Despite the impressive array of studies, I’m not convinced. Even if taking photographs increases your enjoyment, it may do so at others’ expense, especially if your phone blocks their view! There must be a personal preference factor here too, something the researchers touched upon. For example, among the diners in the photo-taking condition at the farmers market, those with pre-existing negative beliefs about taking photos did not get an enjoyment boost from taking pics of their meal.
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