Donders Wonders Blog

Why you might want to hide your phone from yourself

This post is also available in Dutch.

Many people try to reduce their smartphone screen time in order to better focus on other important life tasks. However, recent research suggests that our smartphones may affect our focus even when we aren’t using them.

Smartphones are rapidly changing the way we live, giving us instant access to our social networks and near-infinite amounts of information. Yet, our increasing use of these powerful devices comes with its own costs: Over-use of smartphones is linked with poorer sleep and worse academic performance, not to mention the hours lost mindlessly scrolling. But there is also a more subtle cost: Simply having a smartphone in our environment can reduce our mental sharpness, even when we aren’t using it.

The mere presence of a phone reduces our mental capacity

In a recent study, participants performed tasks while their phones were either a) outside the room, b) in the room, but in a pocket or a bag, or c) in the open, sitting face-down on a desk. Importantly, the phones were on silent-mode, so participants did not receive any sound or vibration notifications during the experiment. Performance on tasks that require attention and problem-solving was best when smartphones were kept outside the room, worst when they were on the desk, and in between in the pocket/bag condition. People who relied more heavily on their smartphones in daily life showed the greatest drop in performance when their phones were present.

Smartphones attract our attention

Why does just having a phone in the room make us perform worse? One explanation is that smartphones draw our attention away from other tasks because they are highly tempting. Our ability to pay attention to different things is limited, and the more we try to divide our attention among different tasks, the poorer we are able to perform at any given task. For example, if we are trying to read War and Peace in the presence of a smartphone, our attention may be automatically drawn towards the smartphone, and we might not comprehend the book as well. 

Smartphones create an opportunity cost

A related perspective focuses on the costs and benefits of doing a given task. Whether we pay attention to a mental task can be framed as a choice, in which we weigh the costs against the benefits of doing that particular task. An opportunity cost is a particular kind of cost — it is the cost of missing out on other alternative activities that we could be doing instead. Essentially, opportunity costs are like FOMO (a.k.a. fear of missing out): we feel them when we think we could be missing a fun, interesting, or otherwise important experience. Opportunity costs can arise from our limited ability to pay attention, because by doing one task, we necessarily have to neglect another. If we are immersed reading War and Peace, we cannot be simultaneously checking our smartphone. If the smartphone is available and we really like using it, reading War and Peace would then come with a high opportunity cost. Each time we look up after encountering a difficult word or a boring passage, our smartphone will provide a visible reminder of a fun, easy activity that we could be doing instead. Activities with high opportunity costs are thought to feel more effortful – that is, it feels like we need to work harder to maintain our focus on them. Having a smartphone nearby may make it feel more difficult to stay focused on War and Peace, increasing the chance that we will put the book down altogether and pick up the phone instead.  

Out of sight, out of mind?

In sum, smartphones can interfere with our mental performance even when we aren’t using them, probably because they are highly rewarding and thus act as a magnet for our limited attention abilities and create opportunity costs. In order to mitigate the effects that the presence of a smartphone could have on your ability to focus, it may be helpful to keep your phone silenced, out of sight (and out of the room if possible), or even completely powered off, so that you can avoid those constant reminders of the opportunities that you are missing out on.

Further Reading

See this blog post for more information on the costs of spending too much time on our phones.

Author: Rebecca Calcott

Buddy: Francie Manhardt

Editor: Mónica Wagner

Translator: Wessel Hieselaar 

Editor Translation: Felix Klaassen

Photo by Konstantin Dyadyun on Unsplash

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