A new study has debunked the old adage "out of sight out of mind," showing that a smartphone can still be a distraction even when switched off and in your pocket. Researchers have discovered that people performed better across a series of sustained attention and cognitive tests when their smartphones were in another room, and that the mere presence of a smartphone reduced a person's cognitive performance regardless of whether the device was on silent or just nearby.
The first experiment conducted by a team from from the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin involved 548 participants who were subjected to a series of tests designed to evaluate working memory capacity and functional fluid intelligence. The participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups with different phone location conditions, either face down on the desk in front of them, in a pocket or bag nearby, or in the lobby outside of the testing room.
The results showed that those who were instructed to leave their phones in another room performed significantly better than those with their phones on the desk, and mildly better than those with their phones in a pocket or bag. In a post-experiment survey the majority of participants felt the location of their phones had no effect on their performance, indicating some discordancy between perceived and actual effects.
"We see a linear trend that suggests that as the smartphone becomes more noticeable, participants' available cognitive capacity decreases," says Assistant Professor and co-author of the study, Adrian Ward. "Your conscious mind isn't thinking about your smartphone, but that process – the process of requiring yourself to not think about something – uses up some of your limited cognitive resources. It's a brain drain."
A second experiment, involving 296 participants, examined the relevance of a self-reported "smartphone dependency" on the test results. This experiment was similar to the first, with smartphones assigned to three different locations, but some participants were also directed to turn off their phones.
Those who reported being most dependent on their smartphones performed worse on the tests than those who believed they were less dependent, but strangely enough, only when their phones were on the desk or nearby. When their smartphones were kept in another room, all participants performed better on the cognitive tests.
"It's not that participants were distracted because they were getting notifications on their phones," says Ward. "The mere presence of their smartphone was enough to reduce their cognitive capacity."
One of the most significant conclusions the researchers make from these experiments is that it is irrelevant whether your phone is on, off, or just out of sight, when considering its effects on your cognitive capacity. The only direct solution to mitigate this "brain drain" is through separation – something that many would consider unthinkable.
The study notes that these results do seem to contradict other recent studies that demonstrated "separation anxiety" from one's smartphone could reduce cognitive performance. But it is noted that prior studies demonstrating the negative effects of smartphone "separation anxiety" involved either unexpected separation or participants being forced to hear ringing from another room and being unable to answer.
A key difference here to that of prior studies is one of expectation. The study notes that any anxiety from separation can be mitigated through expectations. Rather than springing a forced separation from a smartphone on a person, if they know the separation is coming they can better focus on the task at hand.
These results could have a variety of implications in how we treat our smartphones, from helping students concentration by disallowing them in school classrooms (even if out of sight in bags) to keeping them off the table when out at dinner. So next time you're having trouble concentrating on something, maybe the solution is to put your smartphone in another room.
The study was published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research.