Study Hacks Blog

Do Smartphones Make Us Dumber?

September 22nd, 2020 · 37 comments

A reader recently pointed me toward an intriguing article published in 2017 in the Journal for the Association of Consumer Research. It was titled, “Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity.”

The authors of the paper report the results of a straightforward experiment. Subjects are invited into a laboratory to participate in some assessment exercises. Before commencing, however, they’re asked to put their phones away. Some subjects are asked to place their phone on the desk next to the computer on which they’re working; some are told to put their phone in their bag; some are told to put their phone in the other room. (The experimenters had clever ways of manipulating these conditions without arousing suspicion.)

Each subject was then subjected to a battery of standard cognitive capacity tests. The result? Subjects measured notably lower on working memory capacity and fluid intelligence when the phone was next to them on the desk versus out of sight. This was true even though in all the cases the subjects didn’t actually use their phones.

The mere presence of the device, in other words, sapped cognitive resources. The effect was particularly pronounced in those who self-reported to be heavy phone users.

I think we’re only scratching the surface on the damage caused by our current technology habits. As I argued in Digital Minimalism, these tools are both powerful and indifferent to your best interests. Until you decide to adopt a minimalist ethos, and deploy technology intentionally to serve specific values you care about, the damage it inflicts will continue to accumulate.

37 thoughts on “Do Smartphones Make Us Dumber?

  1. Svyatoslav Ryndin says:

    Hi, Cal!

    This issue has been raised by Nicolas Carr in his book The Shallows about 10 years ago. Problem not so much with the smartphone, but with the fact that it is always connected to the internet. This is actually a big problem which has no easy solution.

    1. Jyotsna Prasad says:

      I think the only solution is self control.

      1. Mashrur Rashid says:

        Self-control cannot cure this problem, as these technologies are designed to be addictive. I think the only way is to drastic measures.

        1. Marianne L Garvens says:

          Try as my son has and buy a manual typewriter and be more deliberate in your writing – to keep a diary./notebook.

  2. Johan says:

    “In experiment 1, three participants were excluded for indicating they did not own smartphones,…”
    made my laugh out loud 🙂

    1. E. M. says:

      That would have been a small, but interesting control group.

  3. Steve says:

    I have the same issue with the “mere presence” of email on my computer. Since I do contracting work for the Army, I have my contractor email open along with my Army email. Even though I have them minimized in the background, I know they are there and wondering if someone is trying to contact me so I periodically check (like polling in computer science). I would prefer to just look at email first and last thing of the business day but that is not acceptable because of the requirement to respond quickly for both my email accounts (especially since I am now working from home). This is not unique to this particular job, it is the same situation I have had when working for other companies. I find myself tense and less productive because of this.

    1. Katharina says:

      I totally agree. Unless people are okay again with emails being answered within a 24h-period (except for weekends), some jobs will never end to be stressing us out in that way.

      1. Brandon L says:

        Have you tried not responding to email right away? I wonder if you wouldn’t be surprised. People can stand to wait 5 – 8 hours or even 24. Or at least this has been my personal experience.

        1. Joe says:

          Depends on your field and the overall work environment. If I don’t respond to an email immediately, there’s a good chance I’ll get 3-4 more plus a few phone calls from particularly demanding faculty that think my job is to be their personal assistant instead of teaching them how to use our learning management system and other educational technology tools. They’re tenured, so there’s no repercussions for their behavior.

  4. Jeff Hess says:

    The Atlantic asked the question: “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” back in 2008. This is an ongoing trope perpetuated by the folks who lamented that students in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, &c. couldn’t pass a 19th century high school test.

    The current crop of students are never smarter when viewed through the eyes of the previous generations. This has been true going back to ancient history and quite possibly further—“Throwing stick make kids stupid. They no able to stalk prey right!”

    Smart phones make us dumber in the way that written language made humans dumber millennia ago; dumber in the way that books made humans dumber; dumber in the way the printing press and libraries and, for feck’s sake, you get the idea.

    We can’t even agree on what IQ or intelligence is. We shouldn’t be obsessing over how each technological innovation affects how “smart” we are.

    1. EA says:

      Jeff – I don’t see how the point that a previous generation said something about the next generation invalidates any part of the argument. The fact that individuals can’t pass cognitive/memory/knowledge tests that a previous generation could do with its eyes closed is troubling independently of the causes. It means that something is lost. No one is arguing that newer generations are smarter at some stuff (e.g. technology use), and no one is arguing that many good things are born of a new generation. This, again, doesn’t invalidate the issue that something is lost such as the ability to use creative power to create something tangible. If the pandemic has taught us something is that 24/7 technology by itself is not good for human beings and it can cause more issues than it solves.

      1. Jeff Hess says:

        EA,

        Your argument—“The fact that individuals can’t pass cognitive/memory/knowledge tests that a previous generation could do with its eyes closed is troubling independently of the causes”—assumes facts not in evidence

        We simply don’t have sufficient information to draw conclusions.

        1. How do you know that a previous generation could have passed the test?
        2. What was on the test?
        3. How were the test subjects selected?
        4. We have no idea how these specific subjects would have performed on the test if they had never had a smart phone.
        5. Was there a control group and how did they perform?
        6. Finding a group that had never been exposed in 2017 would be nearly impossible.
        7. How did these students compare to say, those from a Amish or similar community.

        I could go on, but I think you can see where I’m going with this.

        Jeff

        1. Scott says:

          Jeff.
          Obviously this article has hit a nerve.
          Thats great!
          Id suggest a more simple experiment, one we can all partake in.
          Simply have a seat on your local Main St, and watch the pedestrian traffic go by.
          Note the phone use by those walking by… (and the total disregard to situational awareness – especially in the times we are in ) . Note the similarity in reaction of asking someone to put their phone for just a moment to gain thier attention to removing candy from a small child’s hand…..
          SMART?

          1. Jeff Hess says:

            Scott,

            Anecdotal observations are not experiments.

            Jeff

          2. James says:

            Anecdotes can’t be dismissed either.

            But for a more rigorous dataset, look at the number of foremen injured or killed on construction sites, and the number who were on their smartphones during the incident. It’s a real concern in the construction world. I’ve seen people nearly get taken out more than once by heavy equipment because they simply didn’t notice it. Maybe my observations can be dismissed as mere anecdotes, but OSHA considers it sufficiently demonstrated to be investigating.

        2. EA says:

          Jeff, read Ms. Twenge’s books, “The Narcisissm Epidemic” and “iGen”, which follows a multi-year study (I think 25 years) about the issue you bring up, and more stuff. The evidence is pretty strong that we’re becoming way less skilled at many things, and less skilled at retention which has obvious consequences.

          1. Jeff Hess says:

            EA,

            I just spent 15 minutes or so researching Psychologist Jean Twenge and I was less than unimpressed. I have much better uses for my limited time and won’t be reading any of her books.

            Jeff

          2. EA says:

            Jeff – your call, but don’t say that there is no evidence and that studies are far from being reliable to provide indications. Ms. Twenge wrote a few books, which link to many other research projects. Good luck in your endevours.

          3. Joe says:

            Trolling Handbook excerpt:

            Step 1: Make unsubstantiated arguments against valid research.
            Step 2: Claim you have “researched” something by spending 15 minutes Googling a name and dismissing them without giving anything resembling a reason.
            Step 3: Continue to act from a moral/ethical/intellectual high ground despite adding zero value to the conversation and refusing to give a fair reading/hearing to opposing views.

            I’ll take the raft of research from real experts over someone whose entire gimmick is to be a tool while blogging about things without any identifiable credentials to support his position.

      2. Joe says:

        Newer generations aren’t smarter at technology use, which is alarming. Working in the instructional design space, and interacting with IT quite often, the biggest thing that we’ve noticed is that our 3,000+ students get less and less capable of understanding how to use their devices and troubleshoot issues every semester. It’s mindboggling how many of our students use Macbooks and then wonder why it’s running slowly when they’ve had it for 3 years and literally never rebooted except for OS updates.

    2. Jared Wyllys says:

      I don’t know if these are close enough comparisons though. The problem that we’re seeing now (and that Cal and others are focusing on), is the degree of distractibility that is more present now than ever before. I think that’s what’s making us “dumber”: the fact that we are pulled away from focusing on things by the notifications and alerts that come with a smartphone, not the portal to knowledge that a smartphone provides.

      1. Jeff Hess says:

        Jared,

        I don’t see the evidence for: “The problem that we’re seeing now (and that Cal and others are focusing on), is the degree of distractibility that is more present now than ever before.”

        There is a narrow window where we can test—using PET Scans, for instance, how the brain of drivers is distracted by talking/texting on a cell phone—but the general problem has too many factors that are difficult, or impossible, to control for. (See my reply to EA above for just a few). I’m not suggesting that cell phones are not a concern, they are, but these soft-science studies are fraught with problems

        I resisted buying a cell phone until my work as an itinerant educator (driving 90 minutes in a snow storm only to find my student wasn’t home) made one absolutely necessary, but my phone now is just a flip model.

        Students are distracted, but no more so than if we allowed them to access any distraction—a comic, a music device, &c.—when they should be paying attention in class.

        There is a lot more going on here than just the bugaboo of Smartphones.

        Jeff

        1. EA says:

          Jeff – when you say “Students are distracted, but no more so than if we allowed them to access any distraction” you bring an important point. I do agree that the tendency to distraction is somewhat natural (I mean, Walter Mitty was written in the 1950’s), but we can’t ignore the fact that when it comes to smartphones are super-powers in their own right. Cellphones are portable, they have ALL the distractions (from comic books to movies to videogames ) at hand, 24 hours a day, and they also provide an incredibly powerful and fragmented way of communicating with other individuals (FB, snapchat, reddit etc.) with literally infinite flow of information and virtually no time to ruminate on the information itself.
          (Good discussion by the way).

          1. Eli says:

            Yep. Eventually, you get finished with or tired of the comic, or book, or ability to gossip with the person next to you, or newspaper, or music, or whatever it is and maybe turn your attention back to what you’re supposed to be doing. The access to continuous, novel avenues for distraction specifically designed to pull our attention is what makes our internet enabled devices different. It’s a matter of degree rather than of kind. Personally, I always fell down (and enjoyed) weird tangential research rabbit holes, but I used to have to go spend hours in a library to do it.

  5. Jake B says:

    Very interesting piece. It’s almost depressing to think that even if you are diligent with your digital hygiene and take the time to store your phone in another room, you’re likely still to be susceptible to stray buzzes and alerts tones from other peoples’ devices.

    It brings to mind the phenomenon you talked about, whereby students’ cognitive capacities/comprehension would be reduced simply by being in the presence of laptops of other students – even if the students themselves were taking notes on paper!

  6. Bob says:

    This article has been confirming what Cal Newport have said for his Ted Talks over digital minimalism.

  7. EA says:

    Cal – I believe I’ve read that study when it was released. If memory doesn’t fail me, it was stated that even the visible presence of someone else’s phone resulted in lowered cognitive power. It feels like a “feng-shui” thing in which the environment can truly change your mood, skills, etc.

    1. James says:

      This has been one of my arguments for having an office outside the home. I have my office set up so that my brain is in “work mode”. For example, I have maps of jobsites on my walls–if I glance up from my work, I’m glancing at something for my work. I’ve got pictures of my kids to remind me why I’m working. The chair, the desk, my cloths, even the type of coffee I’m drinking are all associated with work.

      In addition, there’s a transitional period. When I drive to the office I can mentally close the “home” box and open the “work” box. That transitional period is important. It takes a long time (something like 20 minutes if I recall correctly) to fully switch tasks mentally. A short commute is perfect for that. Walking downstairs to the home office, in contrast, is not.

      I experienced this same thing when I was doing sword fighting. I remember a day when it was cold, my allergies were acting up, I hadn’t slept well, and I wasn’t really feeling like fighting. The ritual of putting on my armor, and just being in the armor, flipped that mental switch and I was irresistibly pushed into “fighting” mode. I was still cold (there was frost on my hauberk) and tired and stuffy, but now those were things to be defeated rather than reasons to stay in bed.

      In other words, I think you’re very right about the “feng shui” aspect of this. I think it goes deeper than most people realize. It’s a powerful force that can be harnessed to help with your focus.

  8. Oscar Aguirre says:

    Just placed my phone in a different room as I read some documents on a computer. I didn’t realize how often I would look at my phone within my peripheral vision even if the phone was turned over and on silent. Only a few hours in and having placed my phone in a different room has “lightened” my “cognitive load”.

    I don’t think of all the tasks I need to “get done” when I look over at it. Since I’m unable to work on the tasks as I’m reading or studying something else at the time.

    As always, thank you Cal, and your great readers who strive to improve themselves.

  9. Marianne L Garvens says:

    One of my sons has a technological job with Salesforce and he works remotely..
    He has become quite disciplined at putting his phone in another room across his workplace (home) to prevent distractions from effecting his productivity.
    He is an avid reader and prefers reading books to reading on the Internet, especially since he can mark them up easily to highlight what’s significant to him.
    He has also chosen to invest in a manual typewriter to do daily writings and has noticed how intentional you must be become and how profound his thoughts are when writing in this manner – that of being quite ‘deliberate’ in the moment..

  10. Brad says:

    Great post. I’m currently making a bigger effort to stay keenly aware of my phone use. The goal is to make it as boring as possible. Regulating email is my next project.

    1. Marianne L Garvens says:

      I’m glad you found my post helpful – I don’t post much – maybe I should post more – but I am unfamiliar with the various platforms and find them more difficult to maneuver them.

  11. Jewell says:

    My smartphone has many apps to help me work more efficiently, But sometimes it distracts me and wastes my time for social media. I don’t know that the phone can make us dumper or not, but I believe that our brains don’t have to work hard while using the phone.

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