When I spent a summer as an exchange student in Japan, my host family took me sightseeing on weekends.
Once, we drove four hours to see a famous waterfall. As soon as we parked, my host sisters and I jumped out of the car to scout for places to pose. We all had cameras, and the three of us took turns smiling for each other against the dramatic backdrop. Then we piled back into the car and drove home.
That was 30 years ago. At the time, I thought that worshiping the image of an experience more than the experience itself was a cultural peculiarity of Japan.
These days, the recording and sharing of special events is undeniably universal.
At the parade for the Women’s World Cup champions, for instance, many of the players waved to the crowds with one hand and held their phones aloft with the other. The crowd they were waving to was, in turn, thick with phones.
It seems the more special the occasion, the more compelled we are to record it.
But what slips through our fingers as we attempt to preserve the fleeting moments of our lives?
Research suggests that the act of recording and sharing an experience hinders our ability to remember it. In one experiment, documented in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, pairs of visitors took a tour of a historic landmark. Only one visitor in each pair was randomly assigned to take photos to share on Facebook. In a surprise memory test one to two weeks later, the visitor who was asked to take and post photos turned out to remember fewer details of the experience.
The scientists behind this experiment and others like it concluded: “Creating a hard copy of an experience through media leaves only a diminished copy in our own heads.”
I once filmed the entirety of my daughter’s viola concert, balancing the phone on the back of the seat in front of me, trying not to miss a thing. But what I missed, in the end, was the experience itself.
Don’t live life through the screen of your cell phone.
Do ask yourself, the next time you reach for your phone to capture the moment, whether doing so will distract you from the moment itself.
Angela Duckworth is cofounder and CEO of Character Lab and a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. You can sign up to receive her Thought of the Week — actionable advice about the science of character — at characterlab.org.