The pictures show that Gia Nardini was there, in Florida, enjoying a visit to an exotic animal rescue facility. She can look back at dozens of snapshots of adorable ex-pets for proof.
But when she hopped in the car to head home, her memories were already fuzzy and her feelings anything but warm.
“I left feeling like I was there, but I was really not there,” says Nardini, an assistant professor of marketing at the Daniels College of Business. “My presence was there, but the rest of me was gone.”
She called her advisor at the University of Florida, where she was earning a PhD in marketing. “People get so caught up in taking pictures,” she told him, “and all of a sudden you’re not focused on what’s actually happening; you’re focused on some future experience of having these pictures.”
Her time at the animal facility sparked what would become Nardini’s research, recently published in Psychology & Marketing, which shows she’s far from the only one feeling detached and unsatisfied these days. Her latest article examines how and when taking pictures undermines personal enjoyment.
“With the advent of smartphones and digital cameras,” Nardini and her team write, “photo taking has become much more convenient such that it is now common practice to take pictures at virtually any occasion — important or not. Pictures may even be changing the occasions themselves: For some people, vacations are transforming from an occasion to get away and relax to an opportunity to capture the best-looking moments on camera.”
Previous studies have shown that while most people don’t think their cameras and phones will have a negative impact, many of them report feelings of isolation at a child’s birthday, school play or concert because of an inability to separate from the screen.
But the issue isn’t necessarily black and white. Nardini’s team discovered that the type of experience a person photographs has a lot to do with the camera’s effect.
For example, taking photos during “moderately enjoyable” activities can actually enhance a person’s experience, Nardini found, especially if the photographer is bored or doesn’t want to be there. “But if you look at something that they are seeking out because they really enjoy it,” she counters — like a favorite band’s concert, for example — “that’s where you see the detriment sink in.”
What doesn’t seem to matter is the number of photos someone takes — it could be five or 500 — or what the person intends to do with the photos, whether it’s viewing them on their own or sharing them on social media.
Nardini’s research crosses from psychology into marketing as she considers what her findings mean for businesses that want to give customers the best experience possible.
“Unplugged” weddings have increased in popularity, her research notes. So have phone-free resorts that shun the screen. Yet, Nardini says, these companies must strike a delicate balance, because technology is so closely connected to our lives, and photos and social media posts are also great advertising. And sometimes it is nice to look back on an image that revives a beautiful memory.
“I don’t think that taking no pictures is the answer,” she says, “but I do think companies could be smarter about helping consumers balance it, so when they come into it they take a moment to appreciate all the different elements and just be fully present.”
Nardini suggests designated phone-free zones at zoos and national parks, with a nudge to enjoy the moment without taking photos. Other businesses can provide photography services so customers don’t have to take their own pictures.
“Guide that experience and structure it a little more,” she suggests. “I think without this information, they could end up hurting their customers’ experiences and ultimately end up hurting their bottom line.”
The next step in this research could be drawing a more distinct line between a moderate and highly enjoyable experience. Nardini adds that it could be helpful to examine the fallout a business may experience when consumers take too many photos — they may be less likely to spend money on souvenirs, leave a positive review or return for a second visit.
Nardini, for what it’s worth, has returned to that Florida animal sanctuary since conducting her research. But this time, she left her camera at home.
“I’m more cognizant of picture-taking now,” she says. “What’s unique about marketing is we have a good understanding of consumer needs and wants and identifying solutions. And I think that puts us in a unique position to apply this knowledge to more important areas — things that are broader than just business. I think that has always been our duty. I want to use my understanding of the human experience to instigate some sort of societal change.”