The study, co-authored by Kristin Diehl, an associate professor of marketing at USC, has gained significant traction online since it was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology little more than a week ago. And with such a satisfying finding — you mean all that time spent cropping, filtering and editing photos was actually good for my mental health? — why wouldn't you want to click on it?
There's just one problem with the media's framing of the study: The researchers never actually studied the psychological effects of Instagram. Rather, they conducted a series of experiments to test whether participants enjoyed their experiences more or less after merely taking photos of them. What the study participants chose to do — or not do — with those images never factored into the equation.
“Basically what we're looking at is wherever you take photos or have the ability to take photos and how that affects engagement or enjoyment,” Diehl, a USC Marshall School of Business professor, told us. “Now it doesn't say anything about social media,” she said, “because the situation is so complex.”
Which isn't to say that the finding isn't still significant, even if it has nothing to do with Instagram. Diehl said the field of study is so new that her research is among the first to examine how taking photos of our everyday lives can affect our perception of the often mundane events we're documenting.
An avid photographer, Diehl was spurred to undertake the research after thinking about how recent advancements in technology — the iPhone, for example — have caused a monumental shift in the subject matter and quantity of our photographs. Rather than pose for a few photos at a wedding, for example, we now take dozens of snaps of what we ate for breakfast (avocado toast, anyone?).
Through a series of nine tests, including one held on a city bus tour and another at an outdoor food court similar to Grand Central Market, the researchers asked one group to take photos and another — the control group — to simply engage as they normally would (although some chose to take photos, anyway).
Afterward, all of the participants were asked to take a short survey, sometimes in exchange for a candy bar. The groups that took photos of the experience (or of the meal they consumed at Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, for example) consistently reported higher levels not only of enjoyment but also of immersion than those who did not.
The finding surprised Diehl and her co-authors — so much so that they repeated the test several times, thinking they'd initially gotten it wrong. But each time, they landed on the same conclusion: Taking photos can actually improve your enjoyment of an experience, not hinder it. The data runs counterintuitive to the kind of logic that has inspired some L.A. restaurants including Bucato to ban photography outright.
“I think it's fascinating that a restaurant had a problem and came up with this policy,” said Diehl, citing Trois Mec's ban of flash photography. “I think partially why people have this intuition that it should take you out of the experience is partly because people immediately Instagram it and text it and get wrapped up in that experience — and none of that was in our studies.”
What she's essentially saying is this: When you're in the midst of a really good meal, photograph now — Instagram later.