Taking photos with smartphones may impair memory, research finds

by Lily Johnson | 4/12/18 2:25am

With the advent of the smartphone, many people now turn to their phone cameras to record anything and everything they experience. However, new research suggests this may impair their memories of these experiences.

According to a recent study led by Dartmouth psychology Ph.D. student Emma Templeton, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, using smartphone cameras to document an experience weakens the memory of that experience. According to the study, this camera use leads individuals to remember fewer facts about what they experienced, compared to people who did not use their phone camera. However, smartphone use did not affect their engagement with or enjoyment of the experience.

In their study, Princeton University psychology professor Diana Tamir, Templeton, University of Texas at Austin marketing professor Adrian Ward and Stanford University psychology professor Jamil Zaki tested whether giving participants in the study a smartphone camera affected their memory of a self-guided tour of Stanford’s Memorial Church. The 129 participants were randomly assigned to take the tour in one of three conditions: without any digital media; using a camera but without access to social media; or taking photos with the intention of posting them on Facebook. Immediately after the tour, participants reported on their engagement with and enjoyment of the tour. Between seven and 14 days after the tour, participants were asked to complete a 10-question survey comprised of multiple choice questions about the tour’s objective details.

The researchers found that participants with a camera answered six out of 10 questions about their tour correctly on average, while those without a camera answered seven correctly. However, while memory was impaired, the study found no conclusive effects of media use on people’s engagement with or enjoyment of their tour.

“It’s hard to know [who was right] because you have to compare people in different conditions to find a conclusive answer,” Templeton said.

She does, however, recommend not using a phone camera if an individual wants to remember the details of the experience.

According to Templeton, the idea for the study came from a difference in opinion between her colleagues and herself about the effects of smartphones and social media on people’s experiences.

Alixandra Barasch, a marketing professor at New York University, said Templeton’s study aligns with her own conclusions about auditory cues.

According to Barasch, taking photos “guides attention in unique ways” that have both positive and negative effects on memory. The positive effect is that taking photos makes photographers actively search their visual field to decide what to capture. The negative effect is that other senses — like hearing — are overlooked, which causes the loss of factual information, Barasch said.

“The biggest challenge of conducting this [type of] research is that you can’t do it in a lab, so it’s hard to get much control,” Barasch said.

She added that when choosing whether or not to use a camera to document an experience, people should think about how they want to benefit from the experience. If the goal is to merely post photos to social media, then the effects of camera use may not be as important, but if an individual is trying to remember the details of an experience, Barasch recommended that cameras not be used.

Linda Henkel, a psychology professor at Fairfield University, agreed with Templeton and Barasch that camera usage impairs memory. In one of her studies, Henkel found that zooming the camera in on specific details of an object can help people bypass the photo-taking-impairment effect on their memory of the object, even for the parts that were not zoomed in on.

According to Henkel, using photography to document an experience may positively impact memory if people are more selective with what to photograph and take the time to actually look at their photos as memory cues.

“Photos ... are only good if you look at them,” she said.

However, Henkel noted that many people take photos solely to communicate their experiences to other people — like taking “selfies” on Snapchat — in which case, memory of the experience may not be as important.

In the future, Templeton said she hopes to research cameras’ effects on experience enjoyment and engagement and how using media affects human interactions. She said that other researchers have already been doing work to further society’s understanding of these topics and have also conducted studies that corroborate her research team’s findings.

Henkel emphasized that people can make a conscious choice to change their smartphone and media usage habits by being more mindful of when they are using their cameras.

“Little changes go a long way,” she said.