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YOU and Your Smartphone

| April 3, 2018

by Jim Bruce

Today, in the United States some four out of every five individuals age 5 and older have some type of cell phone.  And, most of these have sufficient functionality to be called smartphones.  This is in stark contrast to the time when I was growing up in a small rural southeast Texas town.  Then and there, phones were few in number, wired, and almost all provided only party (shared) line services.  If you needed to talk with someone, you sought him or her out and had a face to face conversation or you wrote a letter.  If you needed information, you found someone to ask or you referred to reference books in a library or school.  In short, it was a very, very different world.
Today, no matter where we are, if we need to talk with someone, we take out our smartphone, call, and expect the person we call to answer no matter where he or she is or what they might be doing.  For example, former Secretary of State Tillerson took the call telling him that his firing was about to be announced in the toilet!  And, if we need a piece of information, we “google” it or otherwise find it via our smartphone, again, no matter where we are or what we are doing.  Research has shown that the typical smartphone owner uses their phone 85 times a day and that 91% report that they never leave home without their phones.  And, 86% of Americans report that they check email and social media accounts “constantly.”
Maureen Hoch, Editor at, wrote in the March 23, 2018 Harvard Business Review Insider:  “If you are not reading this on your smartphone, I’m guessing you still have it nearby.  (Mine is right next to me.)  That’s why I found this research1,2,3  – on how simply having a phone within arm’s reach can affect your cognitive abilities – so important.  In lab experiments, a team of four researchers asked participants to complete cognitive tasks, like doing math problems or memorizing letters, with their phone face down in front of them, in a pocket or a bag, or in another room.  The results showed that the closer the phone was to the participant, the worse they fared on the task.  A smartphone, with its wealth of connectivity and information, is like a beacon for our attention, and ignoring it takes up energy.”
In the study1,2,3 referred to in Hoch’s letter quoted above, the authors note that “Consumers around the globe are constantly connected to faraway friends, endless entertainment, and virtually unlimited information.  With smartphones in hand, they check the weather from bed, trade stocks ­– and gossip – while stuck in traffic, browse potential romantic partners between appointments, make online purchases while standing in-store, and live-stream each other’s experiences, in real time, from opposite sides of the globe.  Just a decade ago, this state of constant connection would have been inconceivable;  today it is seemingly indispensable.”
In their study, the researchers investigated whether having one’s own smartphone nearby could influence that individual’s cognitive abilities.  Two tests were employed.  In the first test, the 800 participants completed math problems and memorized random letters.  This test showed how well those in the study could keep track of task-relevant information while engaging in a complex cognitive task.  In the second test, participants saw a set of images that formed an incomplete pattern and then chose an image that best completed the pattern.  This task tested the individual’s “fluid intelligence,”  or his or her ability to reason and solve problems.
Before beginning the tests, participants were asked to turn all audible alerts and vibration off on their phones and then to either place their smartphone on the table in front of them face down, keep the phone in their pockets (or bags), or leave it in an adjacent room. 
Performance was best for individuals whose phone was in the adjacent room and worst for those whose phones were in front of them on the desk.  Similar results were obtained when the smartphones were powered off.  Thus, simply having your smartphone visible led to an impairment of your cognitive capacity.  The impairment was similar to the effect of lacking sleep.
Cognitive capacity is critical for our learning, reasoning, and developing creative ideas.  Degradation of that capacity affects just about everything you are trying to do.
Why are smartphones so distracting even when they are just there?  Cognitive psychology has demonstrated that we humans automatically pay attention to things that are habitually relevant to us, EVEN when we are focused on a different task.  For example, you will hear your name spoken from across the room even when you are deeply engaged in another conversation or doing some task.  Research suggests that the mere presence of your smartphone is like the sound of someone constantly calling your name.  You get a sense of this by noting that you often check your phone even though none of its alerts have sounded.  Your unconscious resisting of this pull may be undermining your own cognitive performance. 
I hear some of you saying, “I never do that.”  But, most likely you do, particularly if you agree with statements such as “I would have trouble getting through a normal day without my cell phone” and “It would be painful for me to give up my phone for a day.”  Not being comfortable with giving up your phone for a day is not unreasonable given the extent to which we rely on them for like, as one of my grandchildren might say, “everything.”
So, we each face a dilemma.  On one hand, smartphones increase our efficiency, allowing us to save time and money, connect with others, become more productive, and be entertained.  There are times when we need our phones to be at hand.  And, we need to be alert to times when our smartphones are not required, for example when we are doing “deep work” for a designated period of time.  During that time. we can – and probably should – basically put the smartphone away, in another room.
So, are there times when you could choose to put your phone away?  At first thought you may say no!  It is very comforting to have your phone in hand.  And, I do understand that.  Never-the-less, I want to challenge you to give the question some thought.  And, the next time you have set aside time to work deeply on a project, put the phone out of the room and give it a try.  The result just may surprise you.
Make it a great week!  .  .  .  jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

  1. Adrian F. Ward, Kristen Duke, Ayelet Gneezy, and Maarten W. Bos, Brain Drain:  The Meer Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity, Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, University of Chicago Press Journals, Volume 2, Number 2, April 2017.
  2. Kristen Duke, Adrian Ward, Ayelet Gneezy, and Maarten Bos, Having Your Smartphone Nearby Takes a Toll on Your Thinking,, March 2018.
  3. Robinson Meyer, Your Smartphone Reduces Your Brainpower, Even If It’s Just Sitting There, The Atlantic, August 2017.

Additional Readings on the impact of smartphones:

  1. Hilary Brueck, This Is What Your Smartphone Is Doing To Your Brain – And It Isn’t Good, Business Insider, March 2018.
  2. Andrew Griffin, Smartphone Addiction Causes An Imbalance In The Brain That Makes People Tired And Anxious, The Independent, November 2017.
  3. Yani Lea, How Smartphones Affect Your Brain And Body Without You Knowing, Lifehack, May 2018.
  4. Larry Rosen, 6 Ways To Counteract Your Smartphone Addiction,, March 2018.