The Picture Superiority Effect

The Human Brain Is a Scrapbook, Not an Encyclopedia

Images are far more memorable than either spoken word or text, although no one is quite sure why. It’s called the Picture Superiority Effect, and you need to keep it in mind while designing every speech, presentation, social media campaign, and blog post, if you want your ideas to stick.

We’ve known about the effect for millennia. One of the great classical orators, Roman Senator Marcus Cicero (106BC–43BC), was also something of a memory researcher. He recommended the use of images as part of intensive memory training, and it worked.

He was also known to add some sparkle to his speeches with a well-placed prop.


Cicero didn’t have PowerPoint, but he knew how to use an evocative image, in this case an incense burner. Rome would have burned as well, had Cicero been a less effective speaker. And we still remember his speech 2000 years later. (Cicero Denounces Catiline (1882) by Cesare Maccari, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

By 1894, modern psychologists had confirmed, using the scientific method, that pictures were more immediately recognized, and more quickly recalled, than either the spoken or written word. It wasn’t just conventional wisdom or an old wives’ tale anymore. It was actionable intelligence, and educators, politicians, and corporations began to take notice.

The Picture Superiority Effect basically comes down to two statistics. If I tell you something, either in person or in paragraph form, 72 hours from now you’ll only remember 10% of it. If I use relevant images, that number jumps to an astonishing 65%.

I know you just finished reading those numbers, but if you click on this 30-second video, you’re more likely to remember them:

You watched it? The people who scrolled past may not be able to Google “Picture Superiority Effect” next week, because they’ll have forgotten what it’s called. You probably won’t need to, because you’ll remember the key points.
So, How Does the Picture Superiority Effect Work?

Short answer: No one is sure. The brain is a very strange place.

Longer version: The modern eye first developed around 542 million years ago. Human language, on the other hand, is at most two or three million years old, while the written word has only been around for a few thousand years. It makes sense that the brain is wired to process images more quickly than verbal or written information—within 13 milliseconds, about 60,000 times more quickly than it processes a similar amount of written information.

But, despite being the focus of fairly intensive study since the 1970s, the mechanism behind the Picture Superiority Effect is still a mystery. Psychologists have developed an entire literature (which for the most part lacks pictures and graphs, ahem) about it, which dissects the various possibilities.

Researchers first hypothesized that the difference between perceptual processing (which we use for images and objects), and conceptual processing, (words and symbols), was the key. Perceptual memory has a lot more to work with—shape, color, texture, context—than conceptual, hence the ease with which our brains remember pictures.

As advertising became serious business, however, corporations funded real research into that particular theory. It turned out that adding detail did not increase an image’s memorability. In fact, the simpler an image, the more easily was recognized and remembered.

Watch as Shell’s design team figured that out:

shell logos

The data was clear: Simple graphics inspire faster recognition and better recall, more so when uncluttered with words. Corporations asked designers to pare down their logos accordingly. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Other researchers subscribed to Paivio’s Dual-Code Theory, which suggests that images are imprinted in both perceptual and conceptual memory, reinforcing them. Words, however, are only recorded in conceptual memory. Which means that you are more likely to think the word “puppy” upon seeing one, than you are to go to picture a puppy when you read the word.

This hypothesis is reinforced by the counterintuitive fact that the Picture Superiority Effect increases with age. Tweens recognize and remember words and images equally, while younger children tend to do better with words. This may be because of their smaller vocabularies, or perhaps because their neural pathways are less developed.

Either way, if you’re working with grade-school children, or any young audience, images are less important for them than they are for adults.

The effect also increases when two images interplay: A Coke and a smile are both memorable, but put them together and you’re already starting to feel a little thirsty. When two or more images interact, you will remember 90% of the information (as opposed to 65% with a single image) for several weeks. Or longer.

ad-busters flag

Juxtaposing recognized images can convey all sorts of ideas, because each is tied to memories that have been deliberately reinforced through advertising and other methods—in the case of a national flag, songs, oaths, holidays, and political spectacle. (Courtesy Adbusters)

If you’ve always thought of infographics as an amusing diversion from serious marketing and sales techniques, you may want to think again. They are tapping into your personal and shared memories, the very core of your personality and community.

Synergy that Actually Works

Researchers trying to figure out why 8% of salespeople close 80% of all sales often point out that visual storytelling makes all the difference. Salespeople who use PowerPoint presentations, whiteboards, face-to-face meetings, and images embedded in social media and emails are much more likely to close.

“Many sales teams fail to attach enough significance to the art of being a ‘visual seller,’” writes Tim Riesterer, author of The Three Value Conversations. “With the rise of social selling and new modes of media consumption, sales people need to engage with their prospects through more instantly memorable means.”

It goes beyond the superior memorability of images. Most sales are closed, at least partially, on an emotional cue rather than strictly logical cost-benefit analysis. Psychologists believe that visual prompts more effectively inspire emotion because they are processed through the amygdala, also the brain’s emotional center.

Visuals can be incorporated across the sales cycle. This blog is fun to write, and hopefully read, but is at its heart it is essentially a sales tool. So here’s an image of the epic jazz pianist Patrice Rushen.

We hope you will remember. And we realize that this is off topic, but music was so much better back when we paid for it.

You may already know that the “most important strategy in content marketing today is video.” (Now it all makes sense.) Sure, videos take longer to watch than it would to read the transcript, but the information sticks with you several times longer.

Be aware, however, that while higher-tech visuals, such as video and PowerPoint, are today’s top toys, an old-fashioned whiteboard may be better at invoking the Picture Superiority Effect. Your own off-the-cuff artistry is relatively simple, and therefore more memorable than more complex graphics.  Plus, you—a visual object in front of the meeting—are interacting with whatever you draw.

Regardless of the medium, from whiteboard to PowerPoint to infographics, to charts, maps, photos and other visuals, images can and should be incorporated at every level of sales and marketing. Your audience wants to recognize and remember your message, and the Picture Superiority Effect is an excellent tool that will help them meet that goal.


(Forget-Me-Not, courtesy of Pixabay)
2016-10-21T11:03:08-05:00 By |Categories: Communication, Design, Psychology|Tags: , , , |