By Alex Fradera
Avid photographers celebrate the viewfinder as a means of helping us see the world anew. But psychology research has shown that under some conditions taking a photo of something actually makes it harder to remember. One possible reason is that we give less attention to an experience when we know that it will be safely stored in a photograph. But in a new paper in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, Julia Soares and Benjamin Storm from the University of California show that the photo-taker’s memory will suffer whether they expect to keep the photo or not.
This work aimed to replicate and extend a study by Linda Henkel that showed that taking photos of paintings in a museum could lead to poorer recall of those paintings. To make sense of this, Henkel drew on the body of research on transactive memory, which shows that longtime partners or friends distribute memory demands between them, creating a “shared” system where one will remember certain things so the other doesn’t need to. Henkel thought that in a similar fashion we may be treating the camera as a memory partner and offloading the effort onto it. Soares and Storm tested this explanation by separating photo taking from photo having.
The main experiment was a computerised version of Henkel’s museum task. Around 50 undergraduates viewed paintings one at a time onscreen. In one block, participants took a photo of each painting with a smartphone, and then had 15 seconds to look at the painting itself. In a second experimental block, the participants took a photo of each painting, deleted the photo immediately (so they knew it could never been accessed in the future), then had 15 seconds to look at the painting. Finally, in another experimental block, they took no photos and simply viewed each painting for 15 seconds.
After a ten minute delay (during which phones were confiscated) came a multiple- choice memory test probing what the participants remembered about the various paintings. Compared to paintings that were simply viewed, performance was poorer for paintings that were photographed. Critically, this was true both for the condition where the photo was stored, and for the condition where it was deleted, meaning the participant knew they could not rely on it as a future memory partner.
This suggests that offloading may not be the cause of the memory disadvantage associated with taking photos. One alternative explanation is that using a camera forces us to disengage from properly taking in the stimulus, as our attention flows to the mechanics of operating buttons, checking brightness, exposure etc. This is something commonly reported by people as part of their photo-taking experience, and also tallies with the fact that automatic wearable cameras that store images for later don’t produce the memory impairment. However, in the current experiment, after taking pictures (or not), every participant had the same amount of time to take in the paintings without use of equipment, so any distraction effect would need to include some sort of delayed effect on memory processing even after the act of taking a photo was over.
Soares and Storm have a speculative second interpretation. They suggest that the effort involved in taking a photo – getting the framing right, ensuring the lens is in focus – leads to the sense that you’ve done a good job of encoding the object itself, even though you have been focusing more on peripheral features. So you’re not mentally slacking-off because you think the camera has it covered – but because you think you already have. It may be relevant that people who take photographs at events report afterwards feeling more immersed in the experience, which would tally more with this explanation than the disengagement-due-to-fiddling idea. In any case this is further evidence that those of us who approach exciting life events through the lenses of our electronic devices may be distancing ourselves from fuller participation.