TECHNOLOGY

Just Looking at Your Phone Makes You Dumber, New Science Shows

The research is definitive: even just glancing at your phone lowers performance.

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BY Jessica Stillman - 05 Jul 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

You no doubt already know your phone can keep you up at night, annoy your loved ones, and even be as addictive as a slot machine. But are you aware that your little device is also making you dumber?

No, I'm not making some argument about how over-reliance on Google and other tools is making us worse at remembering and processing information. I'm just pointing out new research that shows simply putting your phone -- and its endless distractions -- out of reach can increase performance on a whole range of cognitive tasks.

You don't have to touch your phone for it to distract you.

That's the conclusion of a new study out of University of Texas-Austin highlighted by Corinne Purtill in Quartz recently. The researchers came up with a straightforward test of your smartphone's effect on your smarts: divide a group of more than 800 volunteers into three groups and have them complete standard tests of cognitive performance.

The only twist was that one group was asked to hand over all their possessions before entering the testing room, one had their devices on silent and face down on the table during the testing, and another had them on silent wherever they normally keep them (in a purse of pocket, say). You'd think this minor change wouldn't have much of an impact on mental performance, but you'd be wrong.

"Those who left their phones in a separate room performed far better (pdf) on all exercises than those whose devices were within arm's reach. The effect was more pronounced on participants who rated themselves as being highly dependent on their phones," reports Purtill.

These findings jive with earlier research that showed having a phone within view can have other powerful effects. In the case of the previous studies, simply leaving your phone on the table (but not checking it) while talking to someone made people feel less connected to their conversation partners.

The explanation for these phenomena is simple, Purtill explains: "trying not to be distracted by a phone is, itself, distracting. The more automatic the process of checking our phones and interacting with devices becomes, the more resources it takes to divert our focus away from those devices."

Putting your phone face down isn't good enough.

That means that, whether you're conscious of it or not, even just having your phone within easy reach sucks up brain power you could probably be putting to better use at work. And the more you usually use your device, the worse the effect is likely to be.

The takeaway is equally obvious -- if you want to get concentrated work done (or have a real conversation) make sure your phone is far away and out of reach. You'll instantly be both smarter and more likeable.