The mere presence of a smartphone causes people to suffer brain drain

You may think it’s enough to mute or put away your smartphone when trying to carry out some focused work, but a new academic study suggests that the mere presence of a smartphone reduces our ability to concentrate. The study of over 500 subjects was carried out by researchers at the University of Texas and published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, found that the brain suffers from the unconscious potential to browse, play games and communicate. Even when hidden in drawer or bag, the existence of a smartphone reduces people’s ability to carry out even relatively simple cognitive tasks.

The researchers invited more than 500 people to focus solely on solving a set of maths problems while updating and remembering a sequence of letters. While the test was ongoing, some of the subjects were asked to put their phones on silent while others were asked to put them in another room, hidden from sight in a bag or pocket and others told to merely put them on the desk next to them. The study found a clear link between the location and status of the phone and how well people were able to concentrate on completing the test. Those with it in another room performed best, those with it turned on and placed on the desk did worst, scoring 10 per cent lower on the memory test and about 5 per cent lower on the maths test.

The scientists said it showed that people should consider putting their phone in another room when they need to concentrate. “Across human history, the vast majority of innovations have occupied a defined space in consumers’ lives; they have been constrained by the functions they perform and the locations they inhabit. Smartphones transcend these limitations. They are consumers’ constant companions, offering unprecedented connection to information, entertainment, and each other. They play an integral role in the lives of billions of consumers worldwide and, as a result, have vast potential to influence consumer welfare— both for better and for worse.

“The present research identifies a potentially costly side effect of the integration of smartphones into daily life: smartphone-induced “brain drain.” We provide evidence that the mere presence of consumers’ smartphones can adversely affect two measures of cognitive capacity—available working memory capacity and functional fluid intelligence— without interrupting sustained attention or increasing the frequency of phone-related thoughts. Consumers who were engaged with ongoing cognitive tasks were able to keep their phones not just out of their hands, but also out of their (conscious) minds; however, the mere presence of these devices left fewer attentional resources available for engaging with the task at hand.”

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