Print or digital?

Psychological factors influencing the perception of printed and digital content

by Alice Morotti
November 2021


print or digital

The Digital Age is changing the way we consume information. 

Nowadays, paper is not the only medium we use for everyday reading: we also read on our computers, mobile phones, e-readers, and tablets. We are constantly immersed in an information-intensive world, and the amount of data we are exposed to makes it necessary for us to learn how to quickly identify relevant text and filter out what’s irrelevant. This is especially true for reading online news or searching information on the web, where people tend to focus on just what they’re looking for. 

It seems true, then, that the digital culture puts an emphasis on immediacy.

But what is the difference between reading on paper and reading on a screen according to psychology research?

How different media affect cognitive processes

Have you ever read a few sentences only to realize a moment later that you couldn’t remember what you’d just read? When we are doing attention-demanding tasks and we zone out instead of focusing, we experience a state of mind wandering. With the advent of digitization, people are becoming less and less used to maintaining mental focus when reading. Whereas printed documents are associated with linear and deep reading, electronic documents are linked to more superficial reading patterns, such as scanning or skimming. With paper-reading, we might idle and skim, but sequential reading is the standard approach to printed texts (i.e. reading a text back-to-back). The rapid pace of navigation might instead lead us to process information less thoroughly. 

Several studies have documented that people reading on a screen remember less of what they read compared to people reading on paper.

Mangen et al. (2013) administered a reading comprehension test to two groups of Norwegian tenth-graders. The two groups had to read the same two texts, but one group of students read them on paper whereas the other one read them on a computer screen. Those in the paper-reading condition scored significantly higher than those in the digital reading group. In the same year, Stoop et al. compared the learning performance of students reading text on paper and students reading the same material in digital format. The digital text was presented as seven web pages and didn’t need scrolling. Mouse-hovering enabled a glossary function and next to the text there were study questions with relative answers. In the paper format, the glossary and the questions were placed at the back. The digital reading group scored better on the test. These results highlight how reading on screen is not always detrimental if the text is enhanced with appropriate features.

Experimental results show that text presentation type affects cognitive load and attention in mobile reading. In particular, paging and scrolling garner the highest sustained attention and require the lowest mental effort. On the contrary, dynamic text displays (i.e. auto-scrolling or quick serial text presentation) negatively affect the learners’ cognitive processes. 

The majority of students find it harder to concentrate when reading on-screen and they multitask a lot more than when reading in print. This effect is lessened for students who are more accustomed to researching information online. German professor Johannes Naumann found that students who regularly did navigate the Internet for this purpose were better at finding and recalling useful information on websites than students who mostly used the Internet for other tasks such as chatting, sending emails, or using social media. Results show that online reading engagement influences navigation behavior, and the latter has an impact on comprehension of digital text. 

Other intrinsic variables come into play, such as reading habits. Since many of us often devote digital media to fast interactions and quick information retrieval, we find it difficult to think of them as tools for doing more effortful tasks — for instance, reading a complex long-form text in its entirety. One possible explanation, as previously mentioned, is that the overwhelming amount of digital information users are exposed to on a daily basis makes them accustomed to filtering information, so they can ignore what’s irrelevant and instead focus their attention on the key elements of a page. So is it just a matter of habits or not? 

The aforementioned results may not be as much related to the reading medium per se, as to the different expectations directed towards paper or screen. In other words, we are used to employing digital devices for reading undemanding texts — such as online news, social media posts, etc. — and devoting print to reading texts that require more sustained attention. This may affect our reading habits when using different media, regardless of the type of content.

The construal-level theory by psychologists Trope and Liberman may aid us in explaining how this association between digital platforms and immediacy happens. According to the authors, the psychological proximity (e.g. in time, in space, etc.) to an object or an event affects the way individuals mentally represent it. The more a stimulus is perceived as distant, the more likely it is that a person will think of it in abstract terms; on the contrary, a psychologically close stimulus will be thought of more concretely. High psychological distance triggers abstract thinking, and people will focus more on the “bigger picture”. Low psychological distance will instead trigger concrete thinking, favoring a more detail-oriented mindset. In fact, digital media might have generated a widespread habit of prioritizing specific and immediate information. Research shows that digital users prefer concrete descriptions and are better at comprehending detail-focused information. On the other hand, reading on non-digital platforms is linked to better performance on inferential tasks, i.e. drawing conclusions from premises.

Fesel et al. (2015) have found, however, that people who are exposed to information technology from a young age are able to follow a sequential approach to reading different kinds of digital text – be it linear text with navigating buttons for switching pages, digital text with an overview on top, hypertext with links, and hypertext with an overview. The reading comprehension score doesn’t differ between text types. 

In conclusion, we can suppose that attention, memory, comprehension, and learning are affected by the reading medium but also by our attitude towards that medium, mediated by the activities we typically perform when using it.

And what about ads and catalogs?


Venkatraman et al. (2021) analyzed the relative memorability of print versus digital advertising. They used eye-tracking for measuring attention, skin conductance and heart rate for measuring engagement, fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) for observing brain activity, and tests on recalling or retrieving accuracy. 

Both attention and engagement are involved in processing new, unknown stimuli. An ad is more likely to be remembered the more the viewers are engaged and focused while looking at it. The authors hypothesized that the tangibility of paper may result in greater memory durability for print ads since directly touching and holding paper offers sensory and spatial cues. These cues also favor a clear representation of the context of material presentation.

Processing times were longer for print ads, which were also associated with larger average pupil size. Attention was more diffused with print ads, too. Digital ads were processed through more frequent long fixations, which are associated with deep processing. These findings suggest that different processing strategies are used for different ad formats: participants focused their attention on specific items in digital ads and processed a greater breadth of elements in print ads. 

Post ad exposure, there were no significant differences in attitudes towards the ads and products based on the presentation format.  

After a week, recognition and content memory didn’t differ across ad formats, though participants were quicker and more accurate in recalling the context for print ads (they better remembered the format in which they had seen the ad). Print ads were also related to greater activation in the hippocampus. The hippocampus notably plays an important role in the formation of new memories, especially regarding new experiences, emotional context, and spatial representation. 

Together with the greater memory for contextual factors, the larger pupil size, and biometric measures suggesting higher arousal rates, the results suggest that print ads are linked to better encoding and higher engagement.

In a second experiment, the authors tried using ad snippets as retrieval cues (e.g. faces, words, scenes). When consumers purchase a product they rarely do it immediately after viewing an advertisement. When shopping online or offline, relevant environmental cues often trigger information related to a previously viewed ad. The findings show that the print format leads to better memory for content, context, and brand name associations based on retrieval cues

The results suggest that print ads may favor memory retrieval so that consumers remember the thoughts and feelings they associated with an ad the moment they make purchasing decisions.

A study conducted by Jones et al. (2005) found an effect of reading medium (print versus computer screen) on free recall. Print generates a better recall performance, but there is no difference in medium on recognition. The authors propose that individuals store information equally regardless of medium, but print facilitates quick retrieval

These results are reflected in a survey by the U.S. Postal Service. In 2017, 7 out of 10 people surveyed reported that catalogs increase their interest in the listed products, and over 8 out of 10 have bought a product after seeing it in a catalog. 

Physical catalogs generate higher recall levels in the long term, greater brand recognition, and higher purchase intention. They impact purchase decisions by triggering an evaluation process and aiding memory formation during catalog browsing. 

In a field experiment, subscribers to a promotional magazine received a copy in print or by email (Magee, 2012). The email linked to the online version of the magazine. Nearly 5 out of 10 respondents in the online condition remembered receiving the email, whereas 8 out of 10 respondents in the print condition remembered receiving the magazine. Out of those who recalled receiving the copy, the digital version got the lowest open rate. An interesting finding is that younger respondents showed the greatest difference in recall performance (with better memory for the print version) but most preferred receiving the online version. 

Professor Robert Magee then suggests an integrated approach might allow marketers to make the most of each media’s potential benefits, improving communication with different kinds of consumers. However, the bottom line is that print stands out in a world of electronic information.

The reading brain, the reading body

The act of reading generates activity in specific brain regions that are responsible for visual letter recognition, visual-spatial attention, and other cognitive processes involved in phonological and semantic processing. But is that all there is to it?

According to Anne Mangen, researcher and professor of literacy at the University of Stavanger in Norway, reading is an “embodied process” which also involves the haptic and tactile perception of the reading medium. 

Although the basic processes of reading are similar across media, the way readers navigate through text greatly differs. 

When reading books, magazines, flyers, and other physical documents we flip through pages with our fingers. On the other hand, moving from page to page on a device screen is typically enabled by a variety of possible navigational tools. Some examples are index tabs, buttons, hyperlinks, scroll bars, maps and menus. Text on paper is visible in its entirety on concrete, tangible pages; conversely, digital text is virtual in nature and is separated from the screen on which it is viewed. Touchscreens may bridge this gap by offering a simulated experience of turning pages. 


In a study conducted in 2014, Mangen et al. compared the subjects’ performance in reading a story on paper or on an e-reader. Paper readers performed better in the reconstruction of the correct chronological order of 14 events in the story. Similar results were found in a subsequent study in 2019: reading comprehension was comparable in the two conditions, but paper readers were more efficient in locating events in the text. The reason may lie in the ergonomic features of the medium, as the sensorial experience of flipping pages in printed documents gives a better sense of progress. This, in turn, would support a coherent spatiotemporal representation of the text and thus of the story. Scrolling on a computer screen or turning pages by brushing a finger against glass simply doesn’t give the same sense of the text length as print does, and it doesn’t equally support memorizing the location of elements within the whole document. 

Paper readers also reported higher immersion and emotional connection to the story.  People give value to touching and smelling paper, and this could be one of the reasons why most subjects declared a preference for paper over screens. 

Even olfaction has its own importance. Be it old books or new ones, many people love their smell — as is clear from a vast number of book-scented candles and perfumes on the market.

Nicholas Carr highlights some differences in brain activity related to reading a book as opposed to reading online: besides the activity in areas associated with language, memory, and visual information processing, searching and browsing web pages also activates regions associated with decision-making and problem-solving. This is because of the need to evaluate the best links to click on, make navigational choices, process and bypass a plethora of stimuli. Mental resources are thus redirected from deep comprehension and sustained focus to making quick judgments, and the ability to retain and recall data is reduced. 

Findings from a study commissioned by the Royal Mail in 2009 showed that tangible material activates the brain’s spatial memory networks more than electronic devices. In fact, reading content published on paper generates greater activity in brain regions involved in the integration of visual, spatial, and motor information. Participants also stated that paper feels more “real”

In subsequent market research by Royal Mail (2013), they compared direct mail, email, and television and discovered that mail generates higher engagement, emotional connection, and long-term recall levels

So, physical and digital media don’t just affect cognitive processes differently: they differ in the way they influence affective processing, too. Paper generates increased activity in the parts of the brain associated with emotional processing, emotionally powerful memories, and internal affective reactions to external stimuli. These results suggest that people are more prone to internalize information when it’s written on paper and relate it to more vivid memories.

The effect of perceived ownership on evaluating physical and digital goods

Differences in the tactile experience offered by various reading media might explain why many individuals feel some sort of attachment to paper. People form an emotional attachment to things they can touch and hold

Humans even have a neural mechanism specialized in eye-hand coordination, involving the control of gaze direction, touch, and hand movements. Sensorimotor input and visual input are interlinked, such that hand control works together with eye saccades and fixations in order to perform a variety of actions. For instance, we often direct our gaze towards an object before reaching and grasping it. When we do so, we evaluate what the object’s position in space may be, how much we need to extend our arm to grab it, and how our handgrip can best match its size and shape. 

Touching and manipulating an object elicits a feeling of control and possession over it. This sense of physical control could engender perceived ownership, that is perceiving something as one’s own. A renowned psychological phenomenon, the “mere ownership effect”, shows that individuals value objects more positively if they own them. Perceived ownership is comparable to actual ownership in enhancing subjective value. 

Paper and electronic devices are both material goods. However, everything that is displayed onscreen is immaterial. Thus, physical documents ought to generate a higher sense of ownership compared to digital ones, as paper is perceived as more tangible and permanent.

A series of experiments conducted by Atasoy and Morewedge (2018) lead to interesting results in this matter. Participants were willing to pay a higher price to own a hard copy textbook rather than the same product in a digital copy, but not to rent the physical copy. These findings highlight the importance of expected possession of an object in mediating its evaluation, not just for print but also for digital goods

Other studies suggested that even imagining touching an object could enhance perceived ownership. This happens because imagined touch activates the same brain regions as actual touch. The sensorial experience can be recreated through mental visualization, and the more vivid the visual imagery is, the greater is the effect. 

Another interesting finding is that people tend to associate a lower value to a tangible object if their dominant hand is holding another object during the evaluation process. Having their dominant hand occupied makes it harder to visualize holding the target object and impacts evaluation. However, a higher value is ascribed to the target if the dominant hand is holding an object which could be used conjointly with it. Results from the study show that participants found it more difficult to imagine grasping a pen and judged it less favorably when holding a fork in their dominant (vs. non-dominant) hand. These results were reversed when participants held a fork while evaluating a plate of noodles, as the fork could be used to eat them.

Considering how imagined touch and imagined action can affect the perception and evaluation of a product, we can see that the effect of perceived ownership might have implications for online and catalog shopping.

How images and text mediate consumer perception of products

Since Zajonc’s work in 1968, the mere exposure effect has been studied in various settings. Zajonc proposed that repeated exposure to a stimulus would enhance its likability, and he was right. Catalogs are often used as a way to do a sort of indirect window shopping anywhere we are, exposing consumers to products even before actually seeing them. This enhances a sense of familiarity with the products and also the brand.

Since browsing a catalog doesn’t allow readers to touch and hold products, quality images, and descriptions are of utmost importance in conveying information — both for traditional and digital catalogs.  

An important variable in catalogs is the presence of color: color improves attention span, recall, ease of locating information, motivation, and brand recognition. Visual information has a great impact on consumers’ first impression of products and brands, and can also influence emotions. Product photos thus have to be attention-grabbing and provide a clear visualization of the item in the consumer’s mind. 

This also applies to online shopping. According to a Google survey, product images are the number one feature that frequent smartphone shoppers turn to when they are making purchase choices.


In a 2018 survey, 83% of US smartphone owners who responded said that product images or photos are “very” or “extremely” influential for online shopping decisions, closely followed by product descriptions or specifications.

A product is valued more positively if the visual information shown on a catalog or an online store is easy to read and process. Subjective difficulty in constructing a preference in the decision-making process increases tendencies such as deferral of purchase choice and compromise. When consumers find the description of product options written in a hard-to-read font, the deferral tendency is more than doubled compared to a standard font condition. It is highly important to make the information as easy as possible to read and process, as this has a role in preference formation and shopping decisions.

Text clarity, use of color, quality of pictures, and layout… All of these aspects, among others, can improve the mental representation of products and decrease differences between print and digital media in triggering the effect of perceived ownership.

A brief note on text usability and accessibility

A 2014 research found that reading speed and performance were not statistically different for paper and a TFT-LCD display, but symptoms of eyestrain were worse in the latter condition. These symptoms were the same regardless of text length and screen luminance. However, book-like angling of screen displays eliminated this difference in visual fatigue. 

Another study suggested that e-ink triggers fewer eye strain symptoms than LCDs and is similar to paper in this regard, as reported by both subjective measures and the objective measure of blinks per second.

Other than inclination and display type, other factors that affect the readability of digital text and visual fatigue are screen size and font size. A small character size seems to be the main cause of exhaustion in digital reading. Text clarity and ease of reading are important for letter recognition and for encoding their spatial order. Accessibility of text can be improved for example by manipulating its typographic characteristics (type of font, size, spacing, etc.). Spacing, in particular, is a critical factor in modulating the crowding effect: the presence of adjacent stimuli reduces the visibility of a central stimulus. This also applies to letters and words. The closer the letters (and words) are, the more difficult it is to recognize the central one. This affects reading speed by limiting the visual span, which is the number of letters an individual is able to recognize with a single fixation. If we increase spacing, the visual crowding effect is decreased.

Dyslexics are more susceptible to crowding, so their reading speed is greatly affected by conditions of strong crowding. Research conducted on Italian and French dyslexic children (Zorzi et al., 2012) has found that an extra-large spacing reduces the crowding effect and improves both reading accuracy and reading speed in children affected by dyslexia: those in the wide spacing condition made fewer errors and were quicker in reading compared to the standard spacing condition. The inter-letter spacing was increased by 2.5 pt, words were separated by 3 space characters, and the text had double line spacing.

We have seen that when analyzing the act of reading we must take into account both the medium attributes and the readers’. Medium features include the object’s size, weight, material, luminance, page layout, and so on. Some of the reader attributes are motivation, preference, attitudes, habits, and the presence of dyslexia or other reading disorders. 

By taking into consideration people’s differences, reading platforms and texts can be modified in a way that improves usability and inclusiveness.

Paper versus screen: preferences and attitudes

Despite what we may think, the answer to which is better between reading on paper or screen is mostly a matter of individual preference for one medium over the other.

In some cases, the preference for a medium over another depends on the kind of activity they are needed for. For example, more and more university students are resorting to laptops for writing, but printed textbooks are still preferred for studying. 

An international survey commissioned by non-profit organization Two Sides (2017) revealed interesting insight into consumers’ perceptions and attitudes towards digital media and paper. Findings gathered that print is generally preferred to electronic devices for reading and advertising, except for daily news and bill communications. Print is also seen as more enjoyable and trustworthy. 72% of respondents around the globe prefer reading books and magazines in printed format and 52% prefer to browse printed product catalogs, as opposed to the digital versions. Many do not interact with online ads or even actively try to avoid them. People prefer reading online when they read emails, news, short documents, and for fun. Paper is favored for reading long, serious, and/or difficult-to-understand texts.

Kretzschmar et al. (2013) compared cognitive effort in reading on paper, an e-reader, and a tablet. The amount of reading effort wasn’t statistically different in the three conditions; however, all participants favored reading on paper. An interesting result was that reading on a tablet was faster and required less effort for older people, due to the higher contrast granted by backlighting. The authors of the study suggest that the astounding preference for paper is mostly a matter of cultural attitude of skepticism towards digital media

Digital reading may be advantageous when we need to look up specific data and we want to find it quickly, or when we need to read a lot of material that would be difficult to carry around. Moreover, the disadvantages of reading on digital displays seem to lessen for people who frequently resort to it in their everyday lives.

Paper might actually be the better choice when we need to be highly focused on long, complex texts. Farinosi et al. (2016) found that students felt “disconnected” when reading on devices for a long time, whereas paper reading facilitated immersion.

In 2017, Baron et al. surveyed over 400 university students from 5 different countries to find out what they liked most and what they disliked about paper-reading and digital reading. Negative aspects reported for digital reading were eyestrain, perceived exhaustion, being easily distracted, lack of tangibility, and struggling to maintain mental focus

The biggest advantages of onscreen reading were convenience, accessibility to digital copies, and being able to search for words and information easily

When questioned about the disadvantages of paper, many participants focused on the waste of environmental resources or the cost of printing. Some people lamented how easily paper could be lost or damaged, or the difficulty in looking up specific information quickly. The most commonly reported advantages of paper relate to emotional, aesthetic, and physical aspects. Some of the respondents indicated they liked the physicality of print — i.e. holding a book, touching and turning pages, etc. -, its smell, or the sense of ownership over printed documents. Other strengths of reading on paper, as we have seen, are the better spatial orientation provided by printed pages and the easiness of sequential reading.

The haptic feel of paper has a role in catalog likability, too. Thick paper, glossy magazines… The whole page-flipping experience connects to our tactile memory. If touch facilitates forming an emotional connection to a story, with catalogs it promotes connection to the brand. Digital catalogs, however, are less costly, more accessible and shareable. Also, they could reach a broader share of potential customers, and they can be updated immediately and easily.

The results of our survey on paper and digital sales literature

sales literature

We interviewed some of our clients – who produce a variety of sales literature such as catalogs, price lists, product specification sheets, line sheets, brochures, and so on. 

56.3% of them use both electronic and print versions of their sales literature, 37.5% report they mostly use digital formats and just one client resorts to digital-only documents. Those who mostly make use of digital formats usually print out just specific documents when needed – such as the yearly statement or promotional brochures to deal out at trade shows. In some cases, it is a personal choice of salesforce agents. 

The most important aspects that drive this choice seem to be customer preferences and habits (20.7%) and use (20.7%) – whether internal use or customer use. One client says “Most of our customers have moved to electronic use […] If they want [a document] printed, they typically will just print it at their office […]”. Some customers are still attached to paper: they like receiving hard copies and flipping through pages. However, the advantages of having documents on tablets or mobile devices seem to be more and more pronounced. Customers and sales force alike can search what they’re looking for more easily in an electronic document. Also, they can consult the information they need at any time and place without carrying around physical volumes. In the words of one of our respondents: “Customers prefer to have instant updated access to documents. If they pick up a printed brochure it is often immediately outdated and most times lost or discarded.” Printed catalogs are unalterable, whereas digital ones can be updated real-time to go along with variations in product availability and price.

Using both digital and paper documents is related, for some, to enhancing advertising effectiveness. Updatability (13.8%) is the predominant reason for preferring digital documents, followed by environmental issues, convenience, accessibility, and portability. Other advantages cited for digital documents are searchability and efficiency.

And what do our clients plan on doing for the next five years?

The majority (76.4%) think their company will continue creating their documents in the same way they are doing currently. Among them, 11.8% plan to do so while keeping an eye out for digital and technological innovations. The remaining 17.6% think they will move more and more towards total digitalization. Some imagine they’ll make more use of web pages, apps, and web portals. Even among those who plan to keep using both document formats, most report noticing that print demand is decreasing, and some say that they’re unsure of future changes in the market due to the pandemic.

It seems that many companies are trying to digitize their files more and more, and print less. In fact, digital documents seem to provide greater benefits in the modern marketing world.

However, we have seen that there are sensorial, cognitive, and emotional aspects that cause some people to favor paper over digital documents, and this preference is taken into account by companies. Print won’t go out of style as long as there are people who value the experience of having a paper copy in their hands.

Key takeaway

What causes the differences between the perception of print and screen? Is it metacognition (as in readers’ awareness, preference, etc.) or inherent characteristics of the medium?

Considering all the evidence, the reason could probably be traced back to the interaction between the human brain and the reading platform. The answer, then, is both

There are advantages and disadvantages related to every type of media, both objective and subjective, but our choices are heavily affected by our ingrained opinions and habits. The way a reading medium is perceived exerts an influence over its personal use, and the use of a medium, in turn, influences its perception.

What do we have easier access to? Which features of media matter the most to us? What activity do we need them for? Are we on the move or sitting at home? 

Digital media is undoubtedly growing and taking more and more part in our daily lives, but paper is here to stay. And neither is going to disappear soon.

Create your automated document!

Use one of our free InDesign Templates or upload your own layout. Create documents anytime and from anywhere.