Are Our Phones Making Us Less Empathetic?

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Photo: 237/Andrew Olney/Corbis

We already suspect cell phones are making us more distracted. But are they also turning us into terrible friends? That’s what some new research led by Virginia Tech psychologist Shalini Misra suggests, anyway. Misra and her colleagues found 100 pairs of people in Washington, D.C., cafés, asked them to speak about either a meaningful or meaningless subject, and then watched the conversation, noting when one conversational partner or the other messed with his or her phone.

Psychologist Christian Jarrett neatly summarizes the findings on the British Psychology Society’s Research Digest:

Feelings of “interconnectedness” (rated by agreement with statements like “I felt close to my conversation partner”) were reduced for pairs in which a mobile device was placed on the table or held by one of them. Similarly, “empathetic concern” (measured by items like “To what extent did your conversation partner make an effort to understand your thoughts and feelings about the topic you discussed?”) was rated lower by pairs in which a mobile device was brought into view. The topic of conversation made no difference to these results, but the reduction in empathetic concern associated with the presence of a mobile device was especially pronounced for pairs of people who were in closer relationships, perhaps because their expectations about the interaction were higher.

What I was really curious about was this: How many times did each person pick up his or her phone? Alas, Misra told me she and her colleagues didn’t track this. But she told me in an email that her findings suggest something we all have observed in ourselves and others: Our phones make us physically present, but emotionally absent.

She continued:

It urges us to think deeply about how our technologies change us and the physical context of our lives. Are we devoting the time and energy needed to build and sustain our relationships? Are we losing the capacity for thoughtful reflection and empathy?

Hang on, I’ll think about that in a minute. Just got a text.