Why Pictures Might Be Making Us Dumber

Chances are, you have heard someone say (or you have repeatedly said yourself), “I am a visual learner.” There is good reason for this. Research has shown that, by far, we humans remember material much better if we see an image.

John Medina reported in Brain Rules that when information is presented orally, people remember about 10% of the information 72 hours after exposure. If you add a picture, that percentage jumps to a whopping 65%.

No wonder my students always tell me they want to see more examples!

But a question I then offer to my students is this: does remembering equal learning? We may be able to recall the name of Dick Cheney when presented a image of him, for example, and we may even be able to remember that he was the former Vice President under George W. Bush. But it is possible that our learning tends to stop at that memory? Would we know much more about the life, politics, and accomplishments of Dick Cheney if we were simply given more images and captions of him? Snapshots, sure (like the infamous hunting incident), but how deep would our knowledge go?

Some worry that too may pictures may seem efficient for quick recall but ineffective for in-depth engagement. In other words, with too many images, we might get a breadth of what is happening in the world, but not depth. According to this argument, the deluge of images that we face encourages us to be lazier information-seekers where we see glimpses (thousands and thousands of glimpses every day) of news, products, and ideas but we don’t read hardly anything about them. We just scan and skim, and then make assumptions about the rest.

In 1982, USA Today came up with a radical idea: sell more news by using lots and lots of pictures. While it seems crazy now, at the time pundits insisted that such an approach to selling news would be a complete flop—either that, or it would be the slow demise of our culture’s intelligence as we knew it.

Why? Because more pictures would mean more superficial information. People would interpret the stories based on the snapshot gained from a biased and fleeting moment captured in time. Context would be lost, skewed perception and increased ambiguity would reign. Perhaps the biggest fear in this line of reasoning is that with too many pictures we would make incorrect assumptions about world, ideologies, behaviors, local crises, and so forth based on a millisecond moment freeze-framed in a photograph from a single viewpoint.

Over 30 years later, it’s hard to quantify how much the concern has come to fruition. One thing is certain, though, more pictures did sell more news. Medina reports that, within four years of USA Today’s  bold new approach, the newspaper became the second most popular news source in the country. Within 10 years it was the most popular and it remains the most popular today.

Recently, USA Today redid their website. Again. Its homepage looks like this:


Obviously, for quick information and easy navigation, this method works well. But what do you think, does it encourage people to quickly move from one image to the next with only reading snippets or captions of the news?

Many argue that such an image-heavy approach encourages people to actually read the news. Sure, it looks more like entertainment media, but it grabs attention. People are more willing to read entertainment, so making news look similar is a good approach. Be the judge for yourself: considering current global news, how much would you say you really know about the conflict in Syria or the floods in Colorado? Do the images you see satisfy your knowledge appetite on the subject, or do you actually take the time to read about it?

Is capturing attention through images making us more aware, or are too many images actually dulling the depth of our intelligence?