Taking photos of objects and events impairing people's recollection, study finds

Study finds people less able to recall a moment through the act of photographing it

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 December, 2013, 7:38pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 December, 2013, 12:49am


Taking a photograph to help you remember something might end up having the opposite effect, according to research published in the United States.

A study released this week showed that people who took photographs of items during a museum tour were less likely to remember details than those who merely looked at the objects.

That was a lesson for a world growing accustomed to instant photo-sharing on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks, said psychological scientist Linda Henkel of Fairfield University.

People so often whip out their cameras … they are missing what is happening

"People so often whip out their cameras almost mindlessly to capture a moment, to the point that they are missing what is happening right in front of them," said Henkel, author of the study published in the journal Psychological Science.

Henkel set up an experiment in the university's museum in which students were led on a tour and asked to take note of certain objects, either by photographing them or by observation. The next day, their memory was tested - and participants were less accurate in recognising items they had photographed compared to those they had only observed.

Henkel called this the "photo-taking impairment effect".

"When people rely on technology to remember for them … it can have a negative impact on how well they remember their experiences," she said.

A second group offered a slight variation on the findings: those taking a photograph of a specific detail on the object by zooming in on it with the camera seemed to preserve memory for the object, not just for the part that was zoomed in on, but also for that which was out of frame.

"These results show how the 'mind's eye' and the camera's eye are not the same," Henkel said, adding that memory research indicated taking pictures can help people remember, but only if they took time to observe and review. An abundance of pictures might make that harder.

"Research has suggested that the sheer volume and lack of organisation of digital photos for personal memories discourages many people from accessing and reminiscing about them," Henkel said.