The Mystery of the Photo-Taking Impairment Effect

The Mystery of the Photo-Taking Impairment Effect

Photography is a medium in which — for the most part — a moment is intended to be immortalized. But a recent study of memory and cognition coming out of University of California further explored that under certain conditions, taking a photo of an object made it more difficult to recall than merely looking at it, and now, no one is quite sure why.

Before I jump into this discussion, it's worth noting that my academic background is in philosophy, and even then, only lightly in mind and cognition. That said, the double-edged sword that is the discussion of consciousness and cognition is that everybody who can discuss it has experience with it. All articles, journals, and papers cited are linked to underneath this article for further reading. Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

An Overview

If cameras aren't being used to create art, they're being used to capture moments in time the photographer wants to remember. The irony is, it may be doing just the opposite. Julia S. Soares and Benjamin C. Storm of the Department of Psychology at the University of California conducted several experiments to test how taking a photograph and the photographer's memory of the image's contents interact. This inquiry comes off the back of Linda A. Henkel's 2013 study which highlighted the photo-taking-impairment effect after an experiment during a guided tour of an art museum.

Intuition alone might lead one to the conclusion that by taking an image of an object or place, the photographer took in more information than most from the scene. A photographer is likely to observe the subject both through the viewfinder or screen and without the aid of the camera. There is a brief period of composition — even if rudimentary, like merely centering the subject — as well as a general evaluation of the scene and focus of the shot. It would seem on the face of it that the act of taking an image might enrich the chance of remembering the subject in more detail, but the evidence in this study suggests that the opposite effect may occur.

The best explanation as to why this might be the case is a type of "cognitive offloading," where the photographer outsources the memory to the camera, alleviating any need to recall the scene accurately themselves. While certainly a compelling reason, there are a number of variables that may complicate matters. For example, the type of image could play a fundamental role. A study (which currently eludes me, so take with a pinch of salt) showed that gallery visitors spent longer looking at portraits than any other type of image (both paintings and photographs). This isn't an outlandish claim, and it would be interesting to know the role the subject of the image plays in the offloading process. Whatever the case, this best explanation ran into a number of contrary findings in the experiments conducted.

Could my memory of this moment be worse than my subject's?

The Experiments

I will now give a synopsis of the experiments that have helped bring the photo-taking-impairment effect into the foreground of memory and cognition discussions.

Henkel's

In Henkel's two experiments, groups were given a guided tour of an art museum and asked to take photographs of objects. After the tour, questions were asked to the participants about the details and locations of the objects they photographed. The study found that the group who had taken photographs of objects had less accurate and incomplete memories of both the objects' details and locations. This is where the photo-taking-impairment effect is really introduced, and it has been replicated in other studies. This is also where the notion of "offloading" from the photographer's memory to the camera's "memory" is at its strongest. However, in a second experiment, Henkel found that if the participants were asked to zoom in on details of objects, they had a better memory not only of the details of the object in the frame, but also of the details outside of the frame and the general location of the object in the museum. This suggests the photo-taking-impairment effect is contingent on other factors in the image creation process.

Soares and Storm's

Soares and Storm also conducted two experiments, seemingly with the goal of exploring the offloading hypothesis to see if it could hold water. While the second experiment is interesting, the first is what I will focus on here for brevity; make sure to read the full study linked below the article. 

The first experiment had 42 people look at a presentation of paintings, each one for 15 seconds. One group were instructed to simply look at each painting. The second group were asked to use a smartphone to take a picture of each painting displayed and save it. The third group were instructed to take a photo of the paintings with their smartphone, but using the app Snapchat. Now, of course, Snapchat's USP is that the images are temporary and will disappear. Therefore, we have one case where offloading cannot occur, one where it can and probably should occur if the theory is correct, and a third case that is a curveball, acting as a median between the otherwise binary process of taking a picture or not.

Soares and Storm's results. Click the image to be taken to the study.

What these experiments confirmed is that Henkel's findings that there is a photo-taking-impairment are seemingly correct. To summarize the second experiment briefly, it changed small details like the person's exposure time to each painting by removing the length of time necessary to take a photo from the "observe" window. They also asked the participants to manually delete the images rather than let Snapchat do so automatically. As you can see, it appeared to have a drastic impact on what could be recalled, bringing it back in line with merely taking a photo.

What Can We Learn?

This investigation and the hypotheses around the subject are still somewhat hazy and new. That, however, can be exciting and rewarding for anyone looking into the problem, with much of the territory remaining unchartered. My (layman's) summary of the research would be that there certainly seems to be a photo-taking-impairment effect, in that the photographer's memory of the subjects he or she photographs has reduced detail and accuracy when contrasted with a camera-less observer. The idea that by taking a photograph, the photographer offloads the burden of memory to the device doesn't stand up to scrutiny. While perfectly logical, it fails to explain away the gap as demonstrated by Soares and Storm's experiment. In fact, when the photographer knew that the device's memory was essentially irrelevant and unreliable, their recollection of details seemingly worsened.

Potential Conditionals

There are areas of these experiments I would like to see expanded. The term "photo-taking-impairment" is a widely cast net, and it implies that the act of taking a photo of anything reduces the effectiveness of one's memory of it. While possibly true, the experiments have had participants photographing and observing objects and paintings. It would be interesting to see what variables can be manipulated by the other side of the lens. Having participants take photos using Snapchat and deleting the images is a fascinating twist, but the subject of the images has been left largely untouched. What if, for example, the subjects were all people walking into a room, having their picture taken, and then walking back out?

For some purely anecdotal evidence for why this could change the results, I could compare my corporate headshot days with my commercial photography for brands. There have been days I have photographed many people, one after the other, for companies. Similarly, there have been days I have photographed many products, one after the other, for companies. Without question, I can recall every person I have photographed and would never ask the question "have I photographed you yet?" However, I regularly have to go back through my camera's memory card to see if I have photographed a product already, should I lose track.

The entailments of a photo-taking-impairment effect when taking portraits is arguably the most worrisome. We habitually take photographs of important moments of our children, family, friends, and so on. To think that you would weaken your memories of an important event by capturing them on your camera might dissuade you from doing so.

What are your thoughts on this subject? Share them in the comments below.

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8 Comments

Yes!
I have known this for a long time from experience as an amateur photographer (and video filmer).

[ Re.: your comparison of remembering subjects of portraits vs. products:
I suppose you engage very much more with people to make them relaxed in order to get good portraits.]

When experiencing something I often avoid using a camera, when traveling I'm careful not to photograph when I want to absorb environment or action, but I do use the camera in between.

I have a layman's explanation though:
Our minds have limited processing capacity - which a conjurer exploits when distracting us from seeing what really happens.

When I photograph, my mind is busy handling exposure and focus, and even more with composition, balance, foreground vs. background, emphasizing the main subject etc. - even though I more or less do this intuitively.

So there might not be enough processing brain capacity left for registering and remembering the scene as well as when not photographing.

I notice this even more when video filming e.g. a stage performance I haven't seen yet.
Afterwards I have to watch the video to really know *all* that happened on stage and especially the *story*.
Handling even an AF camcorder well obviously takes a large part of my total attention.

Rod Kestel's picture

This is exactly what I was going to suggest: your memory is strongly affected by thing that occupies your attention. For example when you meet a person you forget their name because you're busy taking in other details.

By chance I've just run a column by a professor whose expertise is 'attention'. When she returns I'll ask her opinion. https://www.canberratimes.com.au/national/putting-trust-in-technology-20...

I do a lot of radio interviews and I'm wondering if a similar effect occurs. Live on radio is very intense (and huge fun). When I listen back I pick up many things I missed. Would that be different from a normal conversation?

It would be interesting to see if the competence of the photographer is taken into account.

Research shows that accomplished photographers scan the image area and the subject more than ones who haven’t developed thier photography skills.

On the other hand, I only remember things I need or want to remember. Using a camera as a memory aid allows me to leave many things outside my memory.

For example I can remember a topographic map when navigating the landscape while I need to access that information, yet can’t when I don’t need too or am not interested in doing so.

Photographs that I connect with, and therefore connect with the subject, I can remember so many details.

The finds don’t surprise me at all.

Rod Kestel's picture

Quite likely methinks. See my comment above re attention.

Heratch Ekmekjian's picture

Interesting experiments, although I'm not sure I understand the conclusions.

Taking pictures of something seems to help me to remember it later on, and I wonder if the choice of camera can make a difference in an experiment like this.

A smartphone requires less thought to operate, does that allow you to concentrate on the subject more than fussing with the camera? Or, could it be the opposite...that the extra time and attention required to use a more complex camera might lead you to spend more time with each artwork, possibly helping your memory of it?

My wife will often use word associations to help her remember names, etc. I honestly don't know how successful her efforts are, but that act of concentration alone might help to remember something, if only because she's telling herself that she "needs to" remember this thing.

Since most, or all the people reading this website are photographers, I'll assume our picture taking relative to memory will be different than that of the general public.

I'd be curious to know how an experiment like this would play out when comparing professional photographers/videographers, etc., to average people.

Jerome Brill's picture

I think over time we get accustomed to being able to look up information later. My brain doesn't have to remember when I have another method of recalling that information. It just has to make a smaller note that the information exists in general. Is this bad? If your goal is to recall information without anything external it certainly doesn't help. All the technology we use basically becomes apart of us though.

The brain is very hard to rewire after we learn. I find the best way to remember a photo is be in the moment of what I'm doing first. Build a relationship, no matter how small with the subjects you're photographing. Make mental notes of your surroundings, time of day, even the smell. Focusing only on what's in front of you and pressing a button is not going to give you much of an experience.

The experience itself is what helps us remember things and I think that goes beyond just photography. On the business side, do you need to do all that to make money from clicking a button and sitting in front of a monitor for hours? No, but it certainly is a waste.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Thanks for sharing the experiments and providing a lay summary. This phenomenon fascinates me!

Brett Blignaut's picture

This is exactly why whenever I am doing some travel/wildlife or landscape photography, I put my camera down for a few minutes and just enjoy being there.