We all love our smartphones, don’t we? We can check the weather, video, make appointments, read the news, or talk to someone in our beds or the bathroom, in fact almost anywhere. You may be reading this article on your phone. Our smartphones enable—and encourage—constant connection to information, entertainment, and each other. They put the world at our fingertips, and rarely leave our sides.
While our phones can make our lives easier, more productive and entertaining, is there a cost to us?
Recent research suggests there is— a loss of cognitive functioning.
Adrian Ward and colleagues published their study in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research. “Although these devices have immense potential to improve welfare, their persistent presence may come at a cognitive cost.” The researchers tested this “brain drain” hypothesis that the mere presence of one’s own smartphone may occupy limited-capacity cognitive resources, thereby leaving fewer resources available for other tasks and undercutting cognitive performance. Results from their two experiments indicate that even when people are successful at maintaining sustained attention—as when avoiding the temptation to check their phones—even the mere presence of these devices reduces available cognitive capacity. Moreover, these cognitive costs are highest for those highest in smartphone dependence. “
Just a few decades ago, this state of constant connection facilitated by phones would have been inconceivable; today, it is seemingly indispensable. Smartphone owners interact with their phones an average of 100 times a day, including immediately upon waking up, just before going to sleep, and even in the middle of the night. Ninety-one percent report that they never leave home without their phones according to a Deutsche Telekom study and 46% say that they couldn’t live without them according to a Pew Research Center study.
The sharp penetration of smartphones, both across global markets and into consumers’ everyday lives, represents a phenomenon high in “meaning and mattering” one that has the potential to affect the welfare of billions of consumers worldwide. As individuals increasingly turn to smartphone screens for managing and enhancing their daily lives, researchers have asked how dependence on these devices affects the ability to think and function in the world off-screen.
Individuals are constantly surrounded by potentially meaningful information; however, research has shown that their ability to use this information is consistently constrained by cognitive systems that are capable of attending to and processing only a small amount of the information available at any given time. This capacity limit shapes a wide range of behaviors, from in-the-moment decision-making strategies and performance to long-term goal pursuit and self-regulation.
The researchers did two studies on almost 800 subjects, with the first one testing cognitive abilities on a computer while either having their phone on the desk next to them face down, in their pocket or bag, or in a separate room, with all set to silent mode. That experiment showed that those with the phone in the other room scored much higher on the brain game.
As the smartphone becomes more noticeable, participants’ available cognitive capacity decreases,” says Ward. “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.”
Adrian Ward and colleagues’ research also offers insight into the tactics that might mitigate “brain drain”—as well as those that might not. For example, they find in their study “that the effect of smartphone salience on cognitive capacity is robust to both the visibility of the phone’s screen (face down in experiment 1, face up in experiment 2) and the phone’s power (silent vs. powered off in experiment 2), suggesting that intuitive “fixes” such as placing one’s phone face down or turning it off are likely futile.” However, their data suggests at least one simple solution: keeping the phone beyond easy reach: “Although this approach may seem at odds with prior research indicating that being separated from one’s phone undermines performance by increasing anxiety we note that participants in those studies were unexpectedly separated from their phones and forced to hear them ring while being unable to answer. In contrast, participants in our experiments expected to be separated from their phones (this was the norm and were not confronted with unanswerable notifications or calls while separated. We therefore suggest that defined and protected periods of separation, such as these, may allow people to perform better not just by reducing interruptions but also by increasing available cognitive capacity.”
Even when the phones were turned off (but still near the participants), the researchers found that the devices exerted a gravitational pull on the participants’ attention. “It’s not that participants were distracted because they were getting notifications on their phones,” says Ward. It’s because we have an almost involuntary expectation that these devices have all the information or answers we desire. So even if it’s turned off or silent, it tends to pull your focus away from the task at hand.
So if you’re hoping to prevent this “brain drain” and boost your cognitive function, especially at work or when you’re out with your significant other, try leaving your phone in another room, tucked away in your car or locked in a drawer. When you realize that you don’t have immediate access to it, you free up your brain to focus solely on what’s in front of you.