Picture superiority effect

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According to the picture superiority effect, concepts are much more likely to be remembered experientially if they are presented as pictures rather than as words.

A visual representation of the water cycle.

According to dual-coding theory by Allan Paivio (1971, 1986), memory exists either (or both) verbally or "imaginally". Concrete concepts presented as pictures are encoded into both systems; however, abstract concepts are recorded only verbally.

In psychology the effect has implications for salience in attribution theory as well as the availability heuristic. It is also relevant to advertising and user interface design.

Picture Superiority Effect[edit]

The picture superiority effect refers to the notion that concepts that are learned by viewing pictures are more easily and frequently recalled than are concepts that are learned by viewing their written word form counterparts.[1][2][3][4][5][6] This effect has been demonstrated in numerous experiments using different methods. Explanations for the picture superiority effect are still unknown, and being debated.[6]

Encoding Theories[edit]

Paivio – Dual Coding Theory[edit]

Picture stimuli have an advantage over word stimuli because they are dually encoded; they generate a verbal and image code, whereas word stimuli only generate a verbal code. Pictures are likely to generate a verbal label, whereas words are not likely to generate image labels.[2]

Nelson – Sensory Semantic Theory[edit]

Pictures hold two encoding advantages over words. Pictures are perceptually more distinct from one another than are words, thus increasing their chance for retrieval. In experiments when similarity among pictures was high, no picture superiority effect was present. Pictures are also believed to assess meaning more directly than words. Levels of processing theory applies, when words and pictures are compared under semantic study instructions (rate the pleasantness of each item), recall is very similar for pictures and words, as both were encoded at deeper levels.[2]

Picture superiority results from superior encoding for pictures as opposed to words, which facilitate greater recollection for pictures.[6]

Transfer Appropriate Processing Theories[edit]

Weldon and Roediger[edit]

Greater overlap of processing at study and test result in increased performance. TAP accounts for picture superiority by an interaction of encoding and retrieval. If items are encoded during a semantic task, performance should be higher for a memory test that relies on concepts related to the items for retrieval than a test that relies on perceptual features.[2]

Picture Superiority Effect in Various Memory Tasks[edit]

This effect has been shown to occur in recognition memory tasks, where items studied as pictures are better remembered than items studied as words, even when targets are presented as words during the test phase.[3] Whether the picture superiority effect influences the familiarity and/or recollection processes, according to the dual-process models, thought to underlie recognition memory is not clear.[6]

In experiments of associative recognition memory, participants studied random concrete word pairs, and line drawing pairs. They had to discriminate between intact and rearranged pairs at test. The picture superiority effect continued to express a strong effect with a greater hit rate for intact picture pairs. This further supports encoding theories [7] More recent research in associative recognition shows support that semantic meaning of nameable pictures is activated faster than that of words, allowing for more meaningful associations between items depicted as pictures to be generated.[8]

The picture superiority effect has been shown to be reversed in studies where response time deadlines have been implemented. This is related to the dual-process model of familiarity and recollection. When deadlines to respond were short, the process of familiarity was present, along with an increased tendency to recall words over pictures. When response deadlines were longer, the process of recollection was being utilized, and a strong picture superiority effect was present.[9]

The picture superiority effect is also present in spatial memory, where locations of items and photographs were remembered better than locations of words.[10]

Development of Picture Superiority[edit]

The picture superiority effect in recognition memory shows a developmental trend, becoming more pronounced with age.[3][4] During childhood, specifically among seven-year-olds, the picture superiority effect is lesser in magnitude than in other age groups.[4] This could be due to the lack of inner speech among younger children. This notion supports the dual coding theory of Paivio.

Across the lifespan, the picture superiority effect is evident. In healthy older adults the picture superiority effect was found to be greater than it was for younger adults, in comparison to recognition for words, which was disadvantaged for older adults.[11] In conditions where pictures were consistent, study and target items, ERP results revealed no differences in brain activity for younger and older adults. However, when words were consistent, study and target items, ERP results showed differences between the age groups. These differences suggest that the process of familiarity for words is relatively impaired for the older adult groups.[11]

In populations with Alzheimer’s disease, and other mild cognitive impairments, the picture superiority effect remains apparent.[12] ERP activity indicates that patients with amnestic mild cognitive impairment utilized frontally based memorial processes to support successful recognition for pictures, which was similar to healthy controls, but not for words.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Shepard, R.N. (1967). Recognition memory for words, sentences, and pictures. Journal of Learning and Verbal Behavior, 6, 156-163.
  2. ^ a b c d McBride, D. M., Dosher, B.A. (2002). A comparison of conscious and automatic memory processes for picture and word stimuli: a process dissociation analysis. Consciousness and Cognition, 11, 423-460.
  3. ^ a b c Defetyer, M. A., Russo, R., McPartlin, P. L. (2009). The picture superiority effect in recognition memory: a developmental study using the response signal procedure.Cognitive Development, 24, 265-273. doi: 10.1016/j.cogdev.2009.05.002
  4. ^ a b c Whitehouse, A. J., Maybery, M.T., Durkin, K. (2006). The development of the picture-superiority effect. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 24, 767-773. doi:10.1348/026151005X74153
  5. ^ Ally, B. A., Gold, C. A., Budson, A. E. (2009). The picture superiority effect in patients with Alzheimer’s disease and mild cognitive impairment. Neuropsychologia 47, 595-598. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2008.10.010
  6. ^ a b c d Curran, T., & Doyle, J. (2011). Picture superiority doubly dissociates the ERP correlates of recollection and familiarity. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 23(5), 1247-1262. doi: 10.1162/jocn.2010.21464
  7. ^ Hockley, W. E. (2008). The picture superiority effect in associative recognition. Memory & Cognition, 36(7), 1351-1359. doi: 10.3758/MC.36.7.1351.
  8. ^ Hockley, W.E., & Bancroft, T. (2011). Extensions of the picture superiority effect in associative recognition. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, 65(4), 236-244. doi: 10.1037/a0023796
  9. ^ Boldini, A., Russo, R., Punia, S., Avons, S. E. (2007). Reversing picture superiority effect: a speed-accuracy trade-off study of recognition memory. Memory & Cognition, 35(1), 113- 123. doi: 10.3758/BF03195948
  10. ^ Cattaneo, Z., Rosen, M., Vecchi, T., Pelz, J. B. (2008). Monitoring eye movements to investigate the picture superiority effect in spatial memory. Perception, 37, 34-49. doi: 10.1068/p5623
  11. ^ a b Ally, B. A., Waring, J. D., Beth, E. H., McKeever, J. D., Milberg, W. P., Budson, A. E. (2008). Aging memory for pictures: using high-density event-related potentials to understand the effect of aging on the picture superiority effect. Neuropsychologia, 46, 679-689. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2007.09.011
  12. ^ a b Ally, B. A., McKeever, J. D., Waring, J. D., Budson, A. E. (2009). Preserved frontal memorial processing for pictures in patients with mild cognitive impairment. Neuropsychologia, 47, 2044-2055. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2009.03.015
  • Nelson, D.L., Reed, U.S., & Walling, J.R. (1976). Pictorial superiority effect. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning & Memory, 2, 523-528.
  • Paivio, A. (1971). Imagery and verbal processes. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
  • Paivio, A. (1986). Mental representations: A dual-coding approach. New York: Oxford University Press.