What is the Picture Superiority Effect?

pictures go into the head


Images are far more memorable than spoken word or written text – thanks to the Picture Superiority Effect. Even the great Roman orator, Cicero, knew this. Two thousand years ago he recommended the use of images as part of memory training. He also used visuals, in the form of props, in his speeches. Perhaps that is part of the reason we are still fascinated with Cicero’s speeches 😉

We are very familiar with the saying that “a picture speaks a thousand words”. But this turns out to not be just an old cliché after all! Psychologists confirm that pictures are more immediately recognized, and more quickly recalled, than either the spoken or written word.

This is known as the Picture Superiority Effect. When we read a text, or listen to an audio version of it, we are likely to remember only 10 percent of the information 3 days later. However, we are more likely to remember information for a longer period of time if the text (or audio version of it) is presented with suitable images. In fact, if information is presented to us as text combined with relevant images, we are likely to remember 65 percent of the information 3 days later!


How Does the Picture Superiority Effect Work?


No one can explain with absolute certainty how the Picture Superiority Effect works. It seems that the brain has the ability to process images more quickly than verbal or written information. (Scientists believe that the brain is able to process images approximately 60,000 times more quickly than it processes a similar amount of written information!)

Some experts suggest that images are more likely to be remembered than words, because our brains dually encode images, but encode words only once. What does this mean? It means that when you see an image it is stored in your memory “in the form of a picture”, but also “in the form of a word”. However, when you hear (or see) a word, it is stored in your memory only “in the form of a word”.


You’re Probably Engaging in the Picture Superiority Effect Right Now



The Picture Superiority Effect is particularly clear if we look at the corporate world and education. Just think about it, giant billboards get attention; lengthy articles on notice boards do not. Newspaper advertisements with pictures get more business than wordy adverts. Social media posts with pictures get more likes!

How The Picture Superiority Effect Works in Business and Education

When a teacher explains a complex concept, a student is likely to be far less sure of themselves when they have to complete homework on the subject a day or two later. However, when the teacher explains while scribbling a few diagrams on the blackboard, a student has a better chance to complete homework successfully, even if it is tackled a couple of days later. That is why teachers have whiteboards handy, to aid explanations by illustrating key concepts!

In any presentation, regardless of whether it is in an academic institution, politics, or in the business world, visual aids are vital in ensuring that the message sticks with the audience. For example, the content of wordy PowerPoint slides is unlikely to be remembered. (In fact, it is highly likely that the audience has already been lost during the presentation!) However, slides with short phrases supported by relevant images are much more powerful than slides with full paragraphs.


Visuals and Picture Superiority




If you want your audience to remember information, here’s how to make the best of using visuals:

Visualize before choosing visuals!

Try to visualize what you want to convey – especially if it is a complex concept! Then set out to give your audience a glimpse of the visuals inside your head, so that they too will find it easy to understand the concept.

Keep images simple.

The more simplistic the image, the more easily it is recognized, the more easily it is remembered. So, keep the images simple and clear in order to have optimal success in getting the audience to remember the information presented.


Keep the image relevant.

The Picture Superiority Effect does not only apply to pictures, but also to other images like charts, graphs, and diagrams. Whatever you choose to use, it is vital that the visuals are relevant to the content in order to reinforce your message.

Consider self-created images.

One does not need high tech visuals for optimal effect. Self-created images that are relatively simple may be the most memorable, as opposed to more sophisticated complex graphics.

Use Metaphors.

You can ensure understanding by using a simple metaphor, in the form of an image. If it relates to something the audience already knows or understands, you can effortlessly explain a complex concept. The audience will then draw on this image in the future, to remember what you have conveyed.

Images have a significantly positive effect on various levels: it grabs attention, enhances comprehension and improves recall. So, use visuals – it is pleasant to the eyes, quick for our brains to scan or decode, and easy to remember.