Picture Superiority Effect


In recent years, psychologist and a range of professionals in a plethora of fields have accepted the effect of picture superiority that is individuals are likely to recall picture stimuli more than word stimuli. It is necessary first to understand how recognition decisions are made in order to understand the potential impact of pictures. Numerous theories have been advanced to help understand this phenomenon. The dual-process theory, which is the fundamental basis and point of support posits that recognition occurs on the basis of familiarity and recollection. The former is described as acontextual and the latter the retrieval of specific text bond detail. From this perspective, the current study seeks to examine the notion of picture superiority. Although previous research was mainly based on kindergarten children, the current research has utilized adult participants who have fully developed their cognitive skills in an attempt to establish whether picture superiority is at play within the adult population. Results of the findings suggest that picture superiority is still evidenced in the adult population and also the ability to recall words, albeit low scores.

Keywords; picture superiority effect; recall, retrieval, memory, memory processing


An anonymous source said that “picture is worth a thousand words.” This bit of popular saying seeks to suggest that information that is contained in images is easily processed and understood than a similar message that could be conveyed in words. Numerous psychological studies have investigated the difference that exists between the process of encoding and processing of pictures and words. The phenomena that have been extensively investigated is the picture superiority effect, which postulates that items that are presented in the pictorial format are easily remembered than those in word format (Stenberg et al. 1995, Nelson et al., 1992). Numerous differing studies have emerged over the years to understand the source of this effect. Even though the approaches and explanations are different, the consensus is that the process involved in processing picture is superior that of word processing. A review of literature that investigates this phenomenon provides a well-documented explanation of the mechanism behind the process.

An intrusion effect of pictures would be crucial in understanding how pictures are processed differently than words. The dual coding hypothesis is the most recognized basis of theories regarding picture superiority. This theory postulates that there is a difference between the way pictures and words are processed such that pictorial information is stored twice; acoustically and visually, whereas information on word format is stored either verbally or acoustically (Mintzer & Snodgrass, 1999).

To explain this hypothesis Jenkin and Colleagues (1967), carried a comparison between the recognition of words and pictures. Jenkins and his colleagues tested their participants on their ability to recognize and recall information on pictorial and word format. Words and pictures formed were the basis of the conditions and then recognition on the same was tested. Participants in the picture word condition showed a higher performance than their word counterpart which suggests that pictures are stored both visually and verbally. In fact, participants in the word only condition exhibited great difficulty. As a result, the researchers concluded that words are only encoded only verbally and not visually.

In parallel, Sadoski (2005), also offers a framework by evaluating effective vocabulary learning in children, citing the study by Arieh & Algom (2002), that examined the effectiveness of using pictures in learning sight vocabulary in children. The study finds that children who were presented with a combination of words in printed word plus pictures acquired sign vocabulary significantly faster. Taking into account the findings of this study, Sadoski (2005) concludes that pictures help children learn concert words better. The results by Sadowski (2005) supports the dual code theory that suggests that pictures are encoded verbally and non-verbally. The use of images expands everyday text recognition and processing. Therefore, combining words with pictures help bring a connection between nonverbal and the verbal presentation of words.

Numerous other studies have supported this hypothesis. However, researchers have also proposed an alternative and differing perspectives in the explanation of the picture superiority.Earlier studies such as those by Nelson et al. (1976) offer the sensory semantic model of picture superiority that suggests that pictures are processed along with single stores that are qualitatively superior to the word store. In addition to the sensory semantic model, Nelson and Reed (1976) explained the superiority of picture by suggesting that pictures are not automatically given a verbal label, but rather that the learner controls verbal labeling. Such that, the learner applies the verbal label to an image if the situation calls for the label. This is to essentially help in the processing and storage of the stimuli. In this light, a verbal label is not spontaneous, and it does not need to be applied to convey the meaning of a picture.

Stenberg et al. (1995), provides an alternative explanation. According to them semantic links enable pictures to have a superiority advantage to verbal labels. Conceivably, images activate sematic links better than verbal labels and are thus superior in enabling memory cues. In this study, the authors provided participants word and pictures to study in an initial test and then subsequently tested their memory. Results revealed that both the reaction time and accuracy was faster in picture stimuli than word stimuli. Furthermore, cross-modal priming in which words were primed using pictures and words revealed that words that were primed using pictures were better recognized than those in word format. In light of these results, the study concludes that processing of pictures activates the analogous semantic more significantly than it does for words. These semantic links that are activated during processing may help in the retrieval of information in a subsequent memory test. Other studies also offer a contradictory opinion.

The study by Mintzer and Snodgrass (1999) provides support of the distinct model of picture superiority. The distinctiveness model states that pictures have a highly distinctive sensory and semantic features that make them easy to differentiate from their word counterparts. The support for this theory was demonstrated through participants who showed the best recognition memory for pictures than words. In addition, the study also found that participants had the highest performance in the picture task than the word task.

Similar to Stenberg et al. (1995), the study by Mintzer and Snodgrass (1999) concludes that picture superiority is because of the distinct sensory and semantic properties and not the additional verbal coding as is theorized by the dual coding theory. The study by Stenberg (2006) provides further insight into how the perceptual and conceptual aspects of pictures give the pictures the superiority effect over worst. Stenberg attempts to distinguish between the characters (conceptual or perceptual processing of images and words) that played a significant role in the superiority effect. Results from the study indicate that although perceptual processing plays a considerable part, vast differences exist between perceptual and conceptual based mode of processing. The results thus overwhelmingly suggest that a significant contribution to the superiority effect in pictures is a result of the conceptual processing.

The current experiment seeks to explore the effect of pictorial and word stimuli on the recognition memory. In this study, a total of 20 participants were asked to participate in a recall task.Half of the participants received a list of Indian cuisine in pictorial form and the other half in word format. Based on previous research, and the superiority effect of pictures it was hypothesed that participants who had received a pictorial stimulus would perform well in the recall tasks than their word counterpart.



Twenty random participants (11 females, 9 male), aged between 19 to 24 from the introductory psychology class at Camouson College, voluntarily participated in the experiment. Initially, there were 23 participants. However, 3 participants were excluded in this analysis because one of the participants withdrew himself from the experiment, while the other two were of Indian descent and could, therefore, lead to experiment error.


The materials in this study comprised of a list of Indian cuisine in pictorial and word format, consent form, and a recall sheet. The consent form was printed in an 8.5 * 11-inch white paper typed in Times New Roman. It provides a detailed description of the study as well as outlines the right of the participants. The list of Indian cuisine comprises of a list of 20 pictorial Indian cuisines accompanied by a word. The first condition consisted of a list of 20 Indian cuisines with matching pictures, and the second condition consisted of a list of 20 words that described the list of food presented in the first group. That is, instead of pictures accompanied by words, the second list consisted of descriptive words of the pictorial list of foods that were presented in the first condition.A test score was used for each recall activity. Participants were asked to just recall a total of 10 items from the list.


With permission from the psychology lecturer, the researcher approached participants from the psychology introductory class 101 from Camosun college. The researcher first introduced himself and asked if the participants would be willing to voluntarily participate in the study. Participants were informed of the details of the experiment, including its purpose as well as the role they would play in the test. The research eliminated all forms of deceit and also ensured that there was no harm.

Participants were randomly divided into two groups. Half of the participants in each group were presented with a list that was to be remembered, consisting of 20 items per condition. The first condition consisted of a list of 20 words with matching pictures, and the second condition consisted of 20 words that described the list of food presented in the first group. That is, instead of pictures accompanied by words, the second list included descriptive words of the pictorial list of foods that were presented in the first condition.The participants were presented with the stimuli at the five-second interval after which they were given a recognition task in which they were asked to recall the items presented in their respective conditions. The recognition task also included pictorial fillers that the participants had not been shown in advance to distract them. Results of the participants were based on the mean accuracy rates in the recognition tasks.


The level of significance for this test was set at 0.05. The average number of pictures that were recalled for the group that had seen the pictures in advance is 7.44(sd=1.33), see figure 1 below for a summary of the descriptive statistics. The data were analyzed using an independent t-test sample, and the results were significant with t (18) = +4.71, p= <.0001, which suggests that participants who had seen pictures in advance recalled more pictures than their counterparts who had not seen the pictures.


The hypothesis in this experiment was that Participants who see pictures in advance will perform better in the recall activity than those who have not seen the pictures. The results of the experiment are similar with previous studies regarding the dual code theory which hypothesized that participants will have a positive rate for pictorial stimuli in their recognition task (Paivio, 1969,1971). The incongruent stimuli that was presented in word form revealed a relatively low rate but not a zero-one in tandem with previous research which seems to support the sensory- semantic model (Stenberg et al., 1995). Indeed, participants were able to easily recall the cuisines that were presented in the word- picture condition than the word only condition. While pictures are presumably easily encoded and stored in the memory, the study acknowledges that the presence of irrelevant fillers do not interfere with encoding of words.


Thus far, the results of the study support the picture superiority effect, which is the assertion that pictures influence text processing. With this said, practitioners have taken to using pictures for a variety of reasons; embellishment, representational purpose to mirror texts, organizational illustrations for procedures and manual instructions, interpretational pictures as is found in science books and transformational pictures to enhance recall of information (also cognitive abilities0 especially in kindergarten classes and in classes of kids with special needs (Carney & Levin, 2002).

This study contributes to the existing literature that supports picture superiority. Although previous research was mainly based on kindergarten children, the current research has utilized adult participants who have developed their cognitive skills. Conceivably, the picture superiority is still evidenced in the adult population and also the ability to recall words, albeit low scores. Ultimately, further research is required to demonstrate picture superiority in this population in considering that the results were not 100%, which is also to bring in the aspect of forgetting that was proposed by Wimber et al. (2015).


Arieh, Y., & Algom, D. (2002). Processing picture–word stimuli: The contingent nature of picture and of word superiority. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 28, 221-232.

Carney, R. N., & Levin, J. R. (2002). Pictorial illustrations still improve students’ learning from text. Educational Psychology Review, 14, 5-26.

Jenkins, J. R., Neale, D. C., & Deno, S. L. (1967). Differential memory For Picture and word stimuli. Journal of Educational Psychology, 58, 303-307.

Mintzer, M. Z., & Snodgrass, J. G. (1999). The picture superiority effect: Support for the distinctiveness model. American Journal of Psychology, 112, 113-146.

Nelson, D. L., Reed, V. S., & Walling, J. R. (1976). Pictorial superiority effect. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 2, 523-528.

Nelson, D. L., Reed, V. S., & Walling, J. R. (1976). Pictorial superiority effect. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 2, 523-528.

Sadoski, M. (2005). A dual coding view of vocabulary learning. Reading & Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties, 21, 221-238.

Stenberg, G.(2006) Conceptual and perceptual factors in the picture superiority effect, European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 18(6): 813-847, DOI: 10.1080/09541440500412361

Stenberg, G., Radeborg, K., & Hedman, L. R. (1995). The picture superiority effect in a cross- modality recognition task. Memory & Cognition, 23, 425-441.

Wimber, M., Alink, A., Charest, I., Kriegeskorte, N., & Anderson, M. C. (2015). Retrieval induces adaptive forgetting of competing memories via cortical pattern suppression. Nature neuroscience, 18(4), 582–589. doi:10.1038/nn.3973.


Table 1: Test scores, mean and standard deviation of the two conditions

PictureNo Picture
Standard Error0.444444444Standard Error0.580017028
Standard Deviation1.333333333Standard Deviation1.740051085

*Test score was measured out of 10; that is items recalled out of 10

Figure 1: The average number of pictures that was recalled by participants in the picture group and no-picture group