Pictorial superiority effect: Why a picture really does speak a thousand words


We all love pictures and find them instantly engaging and relatable. Even the incorrigible bookworms and scholars among us can’t help but be drawn to visual creations, whether photographic, artistic, video or digital. 

But did you know that our brains are hardwired to remember graphic information more readily than text based information? And that people have known this fact since Roman times? 

It’s no coincidence that we tell our children to draw mind maps, and create flashcards with visual representations of physics rules or French vocabulary. It’s because our brains respond differently to visual imagery and are able to recall it for longer and more accurately. 

Cicero, the Roman philosopher and scientist, knew this over 2000 years ago. He was one of the first people to study memory training, which he considered to be an art form, and one of the most valuable things a human could do to improve their mental capabilities. Even in those days, he knew that memory for images was superior to memory of text alone. During the 20th century, various scientific studies have also concluded the same thing. 

A present day trend that illustrates the phenomenon is infographics. These have become a staple of our communications toolbox over recent years, because complex information – any information in fact – is much better conveyed, and remembered, if it is presented using clever graphics. In infographic design, this includes charts, graphs, data visualisation and illustrations. 

And of course, advertising professionals have known this forever. Large graphic ads have proven for decades to have more impact and better brand retention, and they also generate more responses. And think about the giant billboards that we see in our city centres.  

Pictures are powerful. But why? 

The underlying principle is the phenomenon we now call the Pictorial Superiority Effect, which basically means that people remember pictures better than words, especially over longer periods of time.  

According to studies, when we read text, we are likely to remember only 10 per cent of the information after three days. However, if we are presented with images to support the text, we can expect to remember 65 per cent of the information after three days. 

Experts still cannot explain with certainty how the Pictorial Superiority Effect works, but it has something to do with the fact that the brain processes images more quickly than written or verbal information. In fact, scientists suggest that images are processed 60,000 times more quickly than a similar amount of written information. 

One possible explanation for this is that the brain “dually encodes images” (i.e. it stores in your memory in the form of a picture and in the form of a word) but it only encodes words once (i.e. stores it only in the form of a word).  

Whatever the reasons, it is a phenomenon which was first spotted in Roman times and has been tested, proven and experienced in daily life ever since. 

It’s one of the foundation stones for PixelPin. Everyone knows how easy it is to forget an alpha-numeric password – especially when we each have to remember so many, when you think about how many websites we use on a daily or weekly, let alone yearly, basis. But the beauty of PixelPin is not only that you get to remember four points on a favourite picture, which we know our brains will find significantly easier to recall than a text based password but even more importantly, you use the same image – your image- on every website where PixelPin is available. Not a new one per site, not a different set of points on each site – the same picture, and the same four points. 

Added to the fact that you will find this way easier to remember than a standard password (think how many hours of your life you can save, with time consuming and irritating password resets) this image-based authentication platform is far more secure, and almost impossible to hack. You can find out more about this on the PixelPin website.