Our smartphones make it harder for us to think whenever they’re near – even if they’re turned off, according to a new study published last week.
“It’s not that participants were distracted because they were getting notifications on their phones,” said the lead author of the study, Adrian Ward, an assistant professor at the McCombs School of Business at University of Texas at Austin. “The mere presence of their smartphone was enough to reduce their cognitive capacity.”
The 800 participants sat at a computer and took a test that required “full concentration in order to score well.” They were randomly instructed to either put their smartphones on the desk face down, in their pocket or bag or in another room. All were told to put their phones on silent.
Those with their phones in another room significantly outperformed everyone else, even those who had their phones in a pocket or bag.
“We see a linear trend that suggests that as the smartphone becomes more noticeable, participants’ available cognitive capacity decreases,” Ward said. “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.”
In another experiment by the authors, participants were asked to report their level of dependence on their phones – how strongly a person feels he or she needs to have a smartphone in order to get through a typical day – and then take the tests. Again, they were randomly told to either keep their smartphone face down on the desk, in their pocket or bag or in another room. In this case, some were told to turn off their phones.
Those who reported high dependences on their smartphones scored worse than the others – except when the phone was in another room. Whether the phone was off or on made no difference.
A study in June 2016 found an average smartphone user touches their phone about 2,617 times per day. Previous studies have found smart phones have made it more difficult for people to concentrate and use late at night can make it harder to sleep.