By Leonid Bershidsky
AS SMARTPHONE CAMERAS continue to improve, we are understandably taking more and more photos with them. Priceonomics, a San Francisco-based firm that analyzes data to create content, attempted to figure just how many more.
Using data from Avast, a company that makes antivirus and maintenance software, it found that the average number of photos stored on a smartphone anywhere in the world is 952. Five years ago, a study based on data from another app developer, Magisto, put the average number at 630. Though the large datasets used in both cases are not directly comparable, it’s likely that they accurately capture how much more we’re photographing with our phones. They also reveal the same trends — for example, more photos taken in certain Asian countries than elsewhere, and more pictures snapped by women than men.
Is this increase in snapping and storing good for us, though? That depends on how we use that camera.
In 2013, Linda Henkel, a psychologist from Fairfield University in Connecticut, described a “photo-taking-impairment effect.” People told to walk around a museum photographing some objects and merely looking at others turned out to have clearer memories of the exhibits they hadn’t snapped. Other studies with different experimental setups have confirmed the existence of this effect.
An early theory explaining the impairment effect held that people forget things they photograph because they, consciously or unconsciously, want to get rid of unnecessary information they’d otherwise keep in their heads. “Cognitive offloading,” researchers named it. Two years ago, Julia Soares and Benjamin Storm from the University of California at Santa Cruz, found that the impairment effect is present even when people use an ephemeral messaging app such as Snapchat to take a photo, or when they’re told to delete the image manually. This suggested that memories aren’t simply offloaded, they’re merely dimmed when we put a camera between ourselves and an experience.
It gets even more complicated. The work of Alixandra Barasch from New York University, Kristin Diehl at the University of Southern California and Jackie Silverman at the University of Pennsylvania has shown that taking pictures tends to aid recall when people consciously look for specific details or aspects to photograph. They called this “volitional photo taking.” This doesn’t actually contradict Henkel’s work: She, too, found that people in her museum experiment tended to remember better when they zoomed in on specific details.
Thus, the question of whether the phone is a memory aid or a trash can for unwanted memories hinges on our level of engagement. We can behave somewhat like professional photographers, looking for the best angle, an interesting detail, an object among many that we want to bring back from an exhibition. Or we can just click that button indiscriminately. Soares of California-Santa Cruz, who found that Snapchat photos are forgotten as fast as the ones that remain stored, referred to the latter practice as “attentional disengagement.” Stepping away from a scene to take a picture, and thus losing touch with it, creates a false familiarity with the subject and makes us less likely to make an effort to remember it.
In another series of experiments, Barasch and Diehl, along with Gal Zauberman from Yale University, discovered that taking pictures tends to make any activity — from a bus tour to an ordinary lunch — more fun when it increases engagement with the experience rather than interferes with it or adds a new element to what’s already highly engaging. And, in a separate paper, they showed that the intention to share photos can detract from the enjoyment because it “increases self-presentational concern during the experience.”
Notably, all this science is consistent with the finding by a group of UK researchers that selfie-taking is positively correlated with smartphone dependency and anxiety. In addition, people who are less phone-dependent tend to take more photographs of nature. Those people also tend to be older. And, interestingly, somewhat older users, according to the Avast data, tend to store more photos on their phones than the youngest people. The average number of pictures on the phone of a person aged 18 through 24 is 836; a person between 25 and 34 keeps 1,067 of them.
Priceonomics offers a plausible explanation: The youngest people are more likely to use ephemeral messaging apps that don’t save photos by default. That means they take more photos with the purpose of sharing them. It also likely means more selfies, which are used as a means of visual conversation, and other low-engagement pictures. Snap, send, forget.
The higher accumulation of photos cluttering the memory of the phones of relatively older age groups isn’t necessarily a problem. Often, these pictures are taken in contemplation, as a way to study something closer, take in and remember more details. Then, the snapping habit isn’t just benign — it’s a private form of art, not necessarily shared with anyone. And even if we never return to our photo galleries, the intimacy of the contact we once established with our subjects can stay with us.