We all know that our phones are turning us into mindless zombies, heads down, blithely texting while we wander into traffic. But a new study suggests it's even worse than that: If your phone is within reach, even it's turned off, it's draining your brainpower.
The study, conducted by researchers at the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin, involved nearly 800 people. Researchers wanted to evaluate how the mere presence of our phones might affect participants, who were asked to complete a number of computer tasks that required their full concentration. They were randomly instructed to put their phones face-down on the desk, in their pocket or bag, or—horrors!—in a different room. All the phones were turned to silent.
Those lucky enough to have temporarily banished their phones to another room scored significantly better than those with their phones on their desks. There was less of a difference between those with phones in their pockets versus on the desk, but even just having their smartphones out of sight was associated with better scores.
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"We see a linear trend that suggests that as the smartphone becomes more noticeable, participants' available cognitive capacity decreases," Adrian Ward, the study's lead author, said in a statement. (Cognitive capacity is the amount of mental work your mind can be doing at any one time.) "Your conscious mind isn't thinking about your smartphone, but that process—the process of requiring yourself to not think about something—uses up some of your limited cognitive resources. It's a brain drain." That's something to consider next time you're on a dinner date and have your phone sitting on the table.
Of course, reading those results, you're likely thinking either "that's not me" or "that's totally me," depending on how phone-addicted you are. So the researchers decided to investigate that variable, too. Participants first described how much they felt like they needed their phones to get through the day. Then they were asked to complete the same computer-based tasks. Their phones were face-up on the desk, in a pocket or bag, or in another room. Some were also asked to turn their phones off.
The results were probably what you'd expect. Those who considered themselves most phone-dependent scored worse than the less-dependent—but only if their phones were nearby, on the desk or in a pocket or bag.
That suggests it wasn't some mental habit or cognitive difference that affected the scores. It was the presence of the phone. And researchers found that it didn't matter whether a nearby phone it was face up or face down, turned on or off. Just having it within sight (or easy reach) added a extra cognitive burden to the brain, something like constantly thinking don't pick up the phone, don't pick up the phone, don't pick up the phone. That reduced the participants' ability to focus, leading to lower scores.
"It's not that participants were distracted because they were getting notifications on their phones," Ward said. "The mere presence of their phone was enough to reduce their cognitive capacity." In other words, our phones aren't just a gateway to wonderful distractions. They are the distraction.
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