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Are Pictures Really Worth A Thousand Words? When It Comes to Memory They Are

Have you ever looked at the coverage map for a telecommunications company, like Verizon, and wondered why a company would choose to spend the money on a colored picture instead of just presenting the information in the paragraph? I mean, wouldn’t it be easier and cheaper to just write it all out? Probably, but it wouldn’t be as effective.

Below is a paragraph that describes Verizon’s coverage in the U.S., and a corresponding image that displays the data. When the information is laid out in text, I bet that you, the consumer, would have a much harder time articulating and remembering the information. But by presenting the information in a picture (like that shown below), you can easily discern and remember the differences between the coverage of four telecommunication companies. Why would this be true? It has to do with the way that we encode, or initially learn, information. This is a perfect example of the picture superiority effect, the phenomenon in which people are better at remembering images than they are at remembering words (click here for a quick, fun video that explains this phenomenon).

“Among the four major wireless carriers, only Verizon’s 4G network is 100% 4G LTE the gold standard of wireless technology. Available in over 500 cities, Verizon 4G LTE covers almost 97% of the U.S. population. Experience the speed and power in more places.”


Let’s think about this: you’re asked to read a paragraph full of statistical facts. First, they’re not super interesting facts. Secondly, they’re incredibly difficult to remember because you have to memorize all the numbers involved while associating those numbers with the corresponding company. In contrast, when you’re given a lovely picture, complete with color, the differences are much more distinctive and memorable. In the example of the coverage offered by each of the four telecommunications companies, visually, you immediately recognize that Verizon has a lot more colored territory than any other company and then remember that information in the future (click here for more information on how the picture superiority effect influences advertisements).

What makes it so much easier for us to remember a picture rather than words? Allan Paivio answered this question with his Dual-Coding Theory. First proposed in 1975, the theory suggested that pictures, unlike words, allow for a process of dual coding. This means that by studying a picture, you are storing both an image code (the picture) and a verbal code (the description for the image). In contrast, words only allow for a verbal code. In this context, code refers to the way in which we organize new information when it is stored in our memory. The two codes associated with the image allow for more than one cue, or stimulus, that help us to retrieve memories (click here for more information on Dual-Coding Theory). Having these memories tagged with multiple cues makes it easier to retrieve information. By comparison, words, which are only associated with one code in memory, are harder to recall (McBride & Cutting, 2016). This theory was supported by previous research that looked at the differences of retrieval, or access to stored information, between words, sentences and images. This research determined that when retrieving information from our long-term memory, or memory that is stored for a long, potentially indefinite, period of time, that sentences and words had about the same memory retention, while pictures had a slightly higher retention (Shepard, 1967).


Think about it. When you’re given a picture of a dog, such as that shown above, your brain encodes not only the image of the cute furry animal, but also the label of the animal as well. Later, when you are looking for this memory, your brain can retrieve it by pulling up the information with either a tag for the image, the word, or both the image and the word. Having more than one code associated with the memory also gives you a better shot at retrieving all the information you have stored that is associated with the word “dog,” like, say, your Aunt Winnie had a dog that looks almost exactly like that picture. When you’re given just the word “dog,” your memories are associated with solely that three-letter word, rather than three-letter word, a picture, and potentially more memories.

While the picture superiority effect has been shown to be highly prevalent in young adults (because most psychologists have plenty of college students to test), the magnitude of the picture superiority effect changes over the course of our lives. Generally, the way that we tend to teach young kids is by associating pictures of things with their words. Think back to your kindergarten classroom or, if that was too long ago, your sibling’s or your child’s. On the top of the walls, near the ceiling, somewhere in the room, I’ll bet that you can picture a continuous poster that gives all the letters of the alphabet. With every one of those letters comes a picture of something that starts with that letter, like “a for apple.” So you might expect that young kids would be really good at the picture superiority effect. Apparently, not so much.

Whitehouse, Maybery, and Durkin (2006) found that while children between the ages of seven and eight did exhibit the picture superiority effect, it was a relatively small effect. However, as the children approached adolescence, the effect became more pronounced.


One suggestion for this change is that younger children, like those around seven years of age, have difficulties creating the internal verbal representations, or verbal codes, that Paivio discussed in his Dual-Coding Theory (Whitehouse, Maybery, & Durkin, 2006). If a child sees a picture of a dog but struggles to encode, or initially learn, that that picture is associated with the word “dog,” they won’t have both the image code and the verbal code interacting with each other. This would make the picture superiority effect much less pronounced. But as we grow older and our ability to mentally label things improves, then so would the picture superiority effect.

Another suggestion for these developmental differences has to do with whether the stimulus is familiar or recollected (Defeyter, Russo, & McPartlin, 2009). The picture superiority effect is primarily associated with recollection, or the ability to remember something. At seven years of age, children haven’t fully developed recognition and so they rely more on whether or not something is familiar (Defeyter, Russo, & McPartlin, 2009). When they see a familiar picture or a word (like that apple I mentioned earlier), they know it. But when they “recollect” an image or word that a researcher had them study, they remember it. The distinction between what is known and what is remembered comes from Tulving’s Know/Remember Paradigm (1985; click here for more information about the paradigm). Although the familiarity of information will always make us think that we “know” we’ve already seen it, as we age, our ability to tell the difference between something that is familiar or recollected improves as we age. This means that by the time we reach about 11 years or age, we show the full picture superiority effect and continue to improve until at least young adulthood (Defeyter, Russo, & McPartlin, 2009; Whitehouse, Maybery, & Durkin, 2006).

Unfortunately, this upward trajectory does not seem to continue into later adulthood. Although healthy older adults still show the picture superiority effect for individual items, they have problems remembering items that are paired (Guez & Lev, 2016). Paired items involve associative memory, or the memory for the relationship between stimuli (Guez & Lev, 2016). An example of this is when you try to remember two initially unrelated things, like a person’s face and their name. As we age, it is much more difficult to learn and remember the relationship between these two items. (This seriously explains why my dad had so many problems remembering the names of all of my friends even if he’d seen them half a million times.) This result is in comparison to young adults who show the picture superiority effect with associated images as well as individual images. This finding shows that old age results in a decrease in the ability to retrieve, or access the information stored in long-term memory, even if older adults are able to encode, or learn, the information in the first place (Guez & Lev, 2016).

Now you know the normal timeline of the picture superiority effect: it develops until somewhere in adolescence or young adulthood and continues to be prevalent in older age, with some problems remembering things that are paired together. But what happens when memory is impaired with Alzheimer’s disease or affected by mild cognitive impairments?


Mild cognitive impairments are defined as a minimal but noticeable impairment in memory, attention, or other cognitive abilities. Clinically, memory for these patients may be improved when pictures are used. However, they also appear to have problems processing visual information, such as difficulty discriminating between faces and reduced speed when pointing to visual targets (Ally, Gold, & Budson, 2009). These are two relatively conflicting findings, so what does that mean for the picture superiority effect in this population? Through their research, Ally, Gold, & Budson (2009) found that the picture superiority effect remains undamaged for patients with both Alzheimer’s disease and mild cognitive impairments when compared to normal individuals. When given pictures, these patients were able to take new information and use it to correctly determine items they had studied previously. This means that despite having impairments in memory, you can still remember pictures better than words!

So while this information might be interesting, what makes it important? As I mentioned earlier, this effect is often exploited by big businesses through marketing to encourage us to buy their products. However, it doesn’t just apply to huge companies. This phenomenon can also be used when we want to get important points across, especially in presentation settings. When a meaningful picture is added to your presentation, it increases the likelihood that your audience remembers those important points that you’re trying to make. And while it is essential to recognize who your audience is to make sure that your point is getting across, most likely, despite age and cognitive impairment, people will have a much easier time remembering those important points that you’re illustrating with meaningful images!


Ally, B. A., Gold, C. A., & Budson, A. E. (2009). The picture superiority effect with Alzheimer’s disease and mild cognitive impairment. Neuropsychologia, 47, 595-598.

Defeyter, M. A., Russo, R., & McPartlin, P. A. (2009). The picture superiority effect in recognition memory: A developmental study using the response signal procedure  Cognitive Development, 24, 265-273.

Guez, J. & Lev, D. (2016). A picture is worth a thousand words? Not when it comes to associative memory of older adults. Psychology and Aging, 31, 37-41.

McBridge, D. M. & Cutting, J. C. (2016). Cognitive Psychology: Theory, Process, and Methodology. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 186-187.

Shepard, R. N. (1967). Recognition memory for words, sentences, and pictures. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 6, 156-163.

Tulving, E. (1985). Memory and consciousness. Canadian Psychology, 26, 1-12.

Whitehouse, A. J. O., Maybery, M. T., & Durkin, K. (2006). The development of the picture-superiority effect. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 24, 767-773.

  1. May 2nd, 2017 at 15:13 | #1

    Thanks for this really informative post! I found the connection to the remember/know paradigm quite interesting, in that I would never think I would be better at recognizing pictures than I am words. I also found your discussion on Alzheimer’s to be quite interesting since we have talked about this disease so much in class. In a study on the Stroop Task, participants who were to develop Alzheimers were less able to inhibit saying the reading the color name when they were supposed to actually say the color the word was written in. Do you think that those with Alzheimers were less able to complete tasks with associative memory because it involves controlled processes, or do you think there is another reason behind this phenomena?

  2. May 2nd, 2017 at 23:06 | #2

    @Mollie Rich
    I’m glad that you were so interested by my post! Specifically, the study on Alzheimer’s didn’t look at associative memory, only the study on aging adults did. However, according to a study by Gallo, Sullivan, Daffner, Schacter, and Budson (2004), participants with Alzheimer’s had more familiarity-based false alarms when testing recall-to-reject on an associative recognition task. This further supports what we have learned in class: that patients with Alzheimer’s have breakdowns in controlled processes but preserved automatic processes. The authors also propose that associative memory is also influenced by the ability to recognize the learned pairs and therefore, it is possible that there is more involved in the decline in associative memory than just a breakdown in controlled processes, such as inhibition. I’m not really sure that I have a good guess at what else might be involved but it would definitely make for an interesting research topic!

  3. tyao
    May 3rd, 2017 at 12:56 | #3

    Thanks for the interesting post! I really like how you connect the paradigm with picture superiority effect! However, picture superiority effect may produce false memories. It is very interesting to me that pictures can actually be somewhat misleading if presented alone, or not appropriately used. For example, the carrier coverage maps told me that AT&T and T-Mobile were way smaller companies than Verizon, but it wasn’t actually the case. Perhaps there may be other reasons why the companies decided to have a certain region covered or not, but we can’t tell from the maps themselves. With no extra reading, I would come to a less accurate conclusion. There are also examples of why we should have our pictures and graphs clearly designed and labeled (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Misleading_graph).

  4. May 18th, 2018 at 01:10 | #4

    I really enjoyed your post as well as your sense of humor! It is interesting to me that we are more inclined to remember pictures rather than words because of the nature of long-term memory being meaning based, that being said my question is when we are looking at the picture are we retracting meaning from the image and why is this process faster for us with pictures?

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