Social Media May Fade Memories

Summary: Researchers say using social media services like Instagram and Snapchat to document your life may come at the cost of you being able to fully remember the events you documented.

Source: UC Santa Cruz.

How much do you value your memories? Enough to forego that next amazing Instagram pic?

Research by UC Santa Cruz doctoral student Julia Soares has found compelling evidence that the act of taking a photograph impairs people’s memories of the event.

“People think that taking a photo will help them remember something better, but it’s actually quite the contrary,” said Soares.

In a set of experiments, she invited people to her lab for a virtual museum tour where they looked at paintings on computer screens, knowing they would be tested on what they saw.

She compared how well participants remembered the paintings following three scenarios: when they just looked at the images; when they looked and took pictures using a camera phone; and when they took pictures using Snapchat.

The picture-takers consistently scored worse — by as much as 20 percent — on multiple choice tests about what they had seen.

Soares thought that the result could be chalked up to the phenomenon known as “cognitive off-loading”: that is, not remembering as well because you know the camera is there to remember for you.

Even people who took pictures using Snapchat — in which images last only 10 seconds — remembered less. People who were asked to take a picture and then delete the image, also did worse.

“Whenever they used a camera, they were less likely to remember as well as when they just observed,” Soares said.

a woman looking at a screen covered in photos
The picture-takers consistently scored worse — by as much as 20 percent — on multiple choice tests about what they had seen. image is in the public domain.

So what’s behind it? Soares has a few ideas: That by stepping out of the moment to take a picture, people become less focused on what’s in front of them, a phenomenon she termed “attentional disengagement.” Taking photos might also create a false sense that we know the subject better than we actually do — what she calls a “metacognitive illusion” — making us less likely to use the mental strategies that help us remember.

Ironically, most of the photo-takers were sure that taking pictures improved their recall, she said.

Her results have made her think twice about when, and how often, she takes pictures.

“I’m not saying people shouldn’t ever take photographs, but they might want to be mindful about deciding when they do it.”

About this neuroscience research article

Source: Carolyn McMillan – UC Santa Cruz
Publisher: Organized by
Image Source: image is in the public domain.
Original Research: Open access research for “Forget in a Flash: A Further Investigation of the Photo-Taking-Impairment Effect” by Julia S. Soares and Benjamin C. Storm in Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition. Published March 2018.

Cite This Article

[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]UC Santa Cruz”Social Media May Fade Memories.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 29 June 2018.
<>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]UC Santa Cruz(2018, June 29). Social Media May Fade Memories. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved June 29, 2018 from[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]UC Santa Cruz”Social Media May Fade Memories.” (accessed June 29, 2018).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]


Forget in a Flash: A Further Investigation of the Photo-Taking-Impairment Effect

A photo-taking-impairment effect has been observed such that participants are less likely to remember objects they photograph than objects they only observe. According to the offloading hypothesis, taking photos allows people to offload organic memory onto the camera’s prosthetic memory, which they can rely upon to “remember” for them. We tested this hypothesis by manipulating whether participants perceived photo-taking as capable of serving as a form of offloading. In Experiment 1, participants used the ephemeral photo application Snapchat. In Experiment 2, participants manually deleted photos after taking them. In both experiments, participants exhibited a significant photo-taking-impairment effect even though they did not expect to have access to the photos. In fact, the effect was just as large as when participants believed they would have access to the photos. These results suggest that offloading may not be the sole, or even primary, mechanism for the photo-taking-impairment effect.

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