Your Phone Is Distracting You Even When You’re Not Using It

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The mere presence of your phone is enough to distract your attention away from complicated tasks, even if you’re not actually using it, suggests a new paper in the journal Social Psychology. Students in two separate statistics classes volunteered to take part in the study, which involved two versions of attention-testing tasks — one simple, the other more challenging. The study authors, led by psychologist Bill Thornton at the University of Southern Maine, explain the tasks in their paper:

For both, participants were presented with a page of 20 rows of single digit numbers singly spaced. The less challenging task was a simple “digit cancellation” task. Each row of digits was preceded by a “target number” that the subject was to circle and then proceed to cross off each occurrence of the number appearing in that row; then on to the next row with a different target number (e.g., 2: 382-162-75 …). The more challenging task was an “additive cancellation” task. Again, each row of digits was preceded by a “target number” that the subject was to circle and then proceed to cross offany two adjacent numbers that “added up” to their target number (e.g., 3: 32-1-6183-0-5…).

In one of the statistics classes, students kept their phones on their desks while they worked on the cancellation tasks. (They were told to keep them out because one of the tasks would be asking about the type of cellphone they used.) In the other, their phones were stowed out of sight. Thornton and colleagues report that the students who couldn’t see their phones did better on both tasks, but especially the more challenging one, getting an average of 26 correct, compared to the other group’s average of 21.

Similarly, recent research has also found that the presence of a cellphone — again, even if no one uses or even touches it— weakens our ability to connect with other people, especially when we’re trying to discuss something meaningful. When you’re trying to concentrate, on work or on the person you’re with, it’s best to put the phone away.