It’s a common complaint—Instagramming your lunch/birthday party/funeral will “take you out of the moment.” You’ll pass your life with no real experience, no memories but those captured in filtered photos. But like most common complaints muttered by fuddy-duddies, it’s not true. According to a new study by researchers Kristin Diehl, Gal Zauberman, and Alixandra Barasch, taking photographs actually does the opposite—it makes you more engaged with your experiences.
“On the one hand, taking photos can be seen as a secondary task that reduces engagement and enjoyment by forcing attentional shifts,” says the study. “On the other hand, one may also argue that photo-taking could increase engagement and thus heighten enjoyment.” The idea is that, whereas multitasking usually divides our attention, photography requires that you direct more attention towards the thing you want to capture. This, suggests the study, would lead to increased engagement in the moment.
To test their theory, the researchers rented an actual tour bus, and took 188 people on a bus tour of Philadelphia. The tours ran hourly, all day long, with 21-24 participants on each ride. On half the rides, there were no cameras. On the other half, participants were given a digital camera and told to take photos as they normally would, and to shoot at least 10 pictures. Afterwards, participants were given survey to determine how immersed they had felt in the bus experience. The result showed that “individuals who took photos during the bus tour enjoyed their experience more than individuals who did not take photos,” although the difference was marginal.
Next, 149 actual diners were buttonholed at a Philadelphia farmers market, and asked to either take photos at their meals, or not. They were then given the same survey as the bus tourists, and the results showed a similar increase in enjoyment for the photo takers.
The researchers conducted several more, similar tests, in natural settings, in controlled environments, and even a video simulation of a bus tour, with an icon that could be clicked to record a “photograph” of the scene.
Across all the studies, the researchers found evidence of heightened enjoyment when taking pictures. But it’s not all rose-filtered good news. Taking pictures also increases the intensity of bad experiences, as the researchers found out when they sent their test subjects on a virtual African safari, complete with dead animals. The description is worth quoting verbatim:
In the more positive video, a group of four warthogs are eating from the remains of a dead antelope while a jackal is trying to get a bite as well. In the more negative video, a pride of lions is attacking a water buffalo, biting and clawing the animal that is still alive.
But the evidence, as the researchers admit, is not overwhelming. The enjoyment levels rise when we take photos, but not by much. On the other hand, the same data clearly shows that taking photos doesn’t spoil the moment at all.
“Photo-taking directs greater visual attention to aspects of the experience one may want to photograph,” write the authors.
So, while you might feel more immersed in a situation while you’re in it, and immediately afterwards, other research shows that taking pictures actually impairs our memory of events. In a 2013 study by Linda Henkel, at Fairfield University, participants also went on a tour, this time of an art museum. Participants were directed by researchers to 10 photos of certain objects. Henkel’s results showed that participants who took pictures remembered less about the exhibition afterward—-the placement of objects in the museum, for example. The effect wasn’t universal, though. Only people snapping pictures of whole objects suffered memory impairment. “However, when participants zoomed in to photograph a specific part of the object, their subsequent recognition and detail memory was not impaired,” writes Henkel.
Lead author Kristin Diehl comments on Henkel’s study in her own paper, arguing that, “If people select which photos to take, memory for these aspects of the experience could actually be enhanced from the decision to take a photo in the first place and the increased attention on the photographed features.”
The results of these two experiments may not be at odds. Perhaps the act of photographing something offloads our memories of it to the camera. Somehow, we may not bother with storing memories we don’t need. This wouldn’t necessarily contradict the increased enjoyment found by Diehl and her team. Diehl does point out, though, that in faster-moving experiences, like watching a sports game, “photo-taking may interfere with the experience and thus decrease enjoyment.” Or if you are watching something like your kid’s school play, then “taking photos may shift one’s attention away from the rich emotional experience, reducing enjoyment.”
This is just speculation though, no more backed-up by data than your grumpy uncle’s assumption that the kids should stop taking pictures at the Christmas dinner because they’re missing the moment. The fact is, your grumpy uncle is—like always—just plain wrong, so perhaps you should take a photo of this article right now to show him at the next family reunion.
Have something to say about this article? You can email us and let us know. If it’s interesting and thoughtful, we may publish your response.