To certain types of restaurateurs, meals served in their establishment are holy things, meant to be digested gastronomically rather than being fodder for a camera lens. Take Momofuku Ko in New York City, where servers quietly but firmly squash any would-be food photographers: There, in 2013, a woman was asked to put her iPhone away — and was granted anonymity in a New York Times interview because she was “so mortified,” telling the Times she “was definitely embarrassed” by the ordeal.
It is a tension between preserving the restaurant atmosphere and an Internet-fueled photography culture, one that is perhaps best epitomized by Instagram. The image-based social-media platform is a bastion of food photography, with popular profiles including “B‑‑‑‑es Who Brunch” and “Girls with Gluten,” and some 10 million posts tagged “brunch.” (The abundant enthusiasm for photographing food has spawned a multitude of mocking accounts, too, like the chef who Instagrams finely plated Swedish Fish and Pop-Tarts.)
“You hear that you shouldn’t take all these photos and interrupt the experience, and it’s bad for you, and we’re not living in the present moment,” Kristin Diehl, a University of Southern California marketing professor, told Time.
The Instagrammers, it turns out, may be onto something. Broadly speaking, when people whip out iPhones to document enjoyable activities, according to a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, they end up having a better time than non-photographers. Written by Diehl and a pair of American psychologists, the report argues that taking photos increases engagement with an activity, in turn heightening the feelings associated with it.
“To the best of our knowledge, this research is the first extensive investigation examining how taking photos affects people’s enjoyment of their experiences,” the authors wrote. Previously, marketing researchers had argued that photographing food delayed the eating experience, which built anticipation so that the final release of munching on an omelet or waffle was all the sweeter.
In the new study, the psychologists ran a series of nine experiments on a total of 2,000 subjects, which included a museum trip, bus tours, a simulated safari and a bite to eat at Philadelphia’s famous Reading Terminal Market. In each scenario, half of the participants were told to take photographs, whereas the other half did not. If — like a tasty farmer’s market meal — the experience was positive, the subjects who snapped pictures reported enjoying the experience more than the non-photographers.
If the scene being photographed was negative, however, it appeared to have the opposite effect. During the virtual safari, a pride of lions began tearing into a water buffalo that fought for its life, a scene most of the participants did not enjoy witnessing. The half of the subjects who had to photograph the mortal struggle reported enjoying the faux safari less than the group who only had to watch.
The researchers say that the same phenomenon — the added engagement caused by taking a picture — leads to both a heightened sense of enjoyment or revulsion. “What we find is you actually look at the world slightly differently,” Diehl told Time, “because you’re looking for things you want to capture, that you may want to hang onto.”
The good news is you do not have to run out and buy a fancy camera — or, perhaps, even a camera at all. It is the mental process that boosts enjoyment, the authors say, and Diehl suggests that taking a photo with your mind’s eye could work in much the same way as clicking a shutter.