How Your Smartphone Camera Is Affecting Your Life

Like many people, I despise my smartphone. I mean, it’s an astonishing piece of technology – a slab of touch sensitive glass connected to the universe—but I resent its chronic temptations, the way it sucks me in with emails, texts, videos, sports scores and other effluvia from the ether. Instead of paying attention to my actual experience—even when it’s the experience of waiting in line or eating lunch—I find myself staring into these lit pixels, thumbing the screen for more.

I realize my complaints are a cliché; it’s easy to hate on these splendid gadgets. Nevertheless, the fact that our daily experience is increasingly mediated by technology does seem to be at the root of many of our 21st century anxieties. Our social networks have been hijacked by Facebook; our public discourse is now dictated by algorithms chasing eyeballs; we can’t order a latte without taking a picture.

It’s that last mediation I’ve been thinking about lately. One reason is that our ceaseless picture-taking seems to be one of the more unexpected side-effects of the smartphone. When you re-watch Steve Jobs’ 2007 introduction of the iPhone, much of it feels familiar. Jobs is proud of a device that can make calls, text and play Pirates of the Caribbean. But what’s more surprising is the way the camera feels like an afterthought during the keynote: Jobs dismisses the tool in a few short sentences. (He honestly seems more interested in conference calling and Yahoo Mail support.) And yet, the built-in camera is now the star attraction of the latest smartphones. If your battery still holds juice, then the best reason to buy a new device is to take better pictures.

Because people take a lot of pictures. According to the Times, roughly 1.3 trillion photos were taken in 2017, the vast majority of them with our smartphones. 350 million of these pictures are uploaded to Facebook every day. Since Instagram launched in 2010, over 40 billion photos have been shared on the site.

That’s a long windup to the practical questions in this post. How are all these pictures affecting our experience? Is the dad at the park taking snapshots of his kids having less fun? When someone records a song at a concert is she missing the music? What is lost when everything can be captured?

A recent paper in JPSP by the psychologists Kristin Diehl, Gal Zuberman and Alixandra Barasch provides some useful answers. The scientists began by taking over a Philadelphia tour bus company for the day. Half of the tourists were assigned to the photo condition: they were given a digital camera and told to take at least ten pictures of their experience. The other half were told to “experience the tour as you normally would.” Both groups were asked to leave their belongings, including smartphones, with a research assistant.

After the bus tour was over, the tourists were given a short survey. Here’s the key takeaway: those people who took lots of pictures enjoyed themselves significantly more. The camera didn’t get in the way—it improved the experience.

The root cause of this improvement was investigated in a second field study done at the Reading Terminal Market, a public food hall in Philadelphia. One hundred and forty-nine diners participated in the study; half were assigned to the photo condition and asked to take at least three pictures of their “eating experience.” The other half were left alone with their meals.

Once again, those who took pictures showed higher levels of enjoyment—photography made their food taste better. Interestingly, these people also showed significantly higher levels of engagement. Because they were immersed in the act of picture-making, they were more attentive to the details of the scene; the mundane experience became an aesthetic event. “What we find is you actually look at the world slightly differently, because you’re looking for things you want to capture, that you may want to hang onto,” Diehl said in a recent interview. “That gets people more engaged in the experience, and they tend to enjoy it more.”

To confirm these findings, Diehl et al. conducted six additional experiments under more controlled conditions. In one study, they used eye-tracking equipment in an archaeology museum—those in the photo condition spent more time looking at the artifacts, which led them to enjoy the museum more. They also showed that, while picture-taking can improve pleasurable experiences, it can also make negatives ones even worse. Because we’re more engaged, the unpleasantness tends to linger; it’s harder to forget what’s still in the cloud.

On the one hand, there’s something rather surprising about these findings. Picture taking, after all, is a form of multi-tasking: we’re dividing our attention between the experience and a technology. In nearly every other instance, such multi-tasking reduces engagement, which is why you shouldn't text while driving. But photography is the exception that proves the rule: for once, the gadget makes us more aware of the world beyond. The mediated experience is intensified.

There are still many good reasons to resent these computers in our pockets. The camera just isn’t one of them. We might joke about all those millennials taking selfies and snapshots, but it turns out they’re maximizing one of the best technologies of the digital age. We’re all searching for ways to be more mindful and present, less distracted by the noise all around. Who knew photography could help? 

Diehl, Kristin, Gal Zauberman, and Alixandra Barasch. "How taking photos increases enjoyment of experiences." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 111.2 (2016): 119.