Why smart phones make us dumb

Feeling distracted and disorganized? Your phone might be to blame.

2-minute read

A 2017 study concluded that the mere presence of smartphones – even when powered off – impairs our cognitive capacity. Researches had over 500 participants engage in cognitively challenging tasks (completing math problems and memorizing random letters) while being randomly assigned to one of three conditions:   

  •     Phones placed on desk = high salience
  •     Phone placed in bag = medium salience
  •     Phone placed in other room = low salience

The result?

There is an inverse relationship between phone salience and cognitive capacity. (The closer the phone, the worse people performed.) This held true even when participants resisted the allure of checking their phones, or in conditions where their phones were turned off!

Take a moment to ponder this outcome... Why do you think phones had this impact on performance?   

One explanation is that the very presence of phones automatically grabs our attention – a limited resource to begin with – making it harder to concentrate on other tasks. Not surprisingly, the outcome was especially pronounced for folks reporting a high degree of attachment and dependency on their phones. 

Image result for hold my phone

What to do with this research? 

The implications of this finding are especially important to consider at work, where productivity matters most. At LifeLabs Learning, we study our clients to find out what the most productive individuals and teams do differently. When it comes to battling the brain drain of smartphones, here are some of the best solutions we've spotted: 

  • WW (formerly Weight Watchers) places fish bowls in conference rooms to collect phones before meetings begin.
  • Flatiron Health has phone-shaped coasters, encouraging people to place their phones on the table, face down.
  • Squarespace has fidget toys in conference rooms and training rooms, getting people to fiddle with something other than phones.
  • Highly productive managers we've studied across different companies report turning off all notifications and even shifting their phones into "airplane mode" when they need to do deep focus work.

If any of these solutions makes you nervous - it might even be time for a total phone cleanse. Turn off your phone for an entire week (or even just a day) and see if you start feeling smarter.